While news leaked about Bobby Witt, Jr. Sunday via Ken Rosenthal, the Royals made the news of Witt’s option official on Monday, as well as the option of other young players who made noise in Cactus League play this Spring.
The news is disappointing, but not necessarily unexpected. The Royals prior to that announcement had already demonstrated that they were going to be on the conservative end with many of their younger players, as first evidenced by the club optioning reliever Tyler Zuber nearly a week ago.
Zuber was up and down during his rookie season in Kansas City in 2020, with most of his issues stemming on his struggles with control. However, Zuber posted a K rate of 30 percent last year, and Royals fans figured that Zuber would be much improved over a much longer season where manager Mike Matheny could use him more sparingly. Maybe Zuber wasn’t late innings material just yet, but he certainly seemed like a decent middle relief option who could be a younger, higher upside option than say Jake Newberry or Minor League signing Brad Brach.
That being said, the Zuber demotion proved to be a sign of a bigger trend at work in the Royals organization. On March 19th, the Royals optioned Kris Bubic to Triple-A Omaha, a slightly surprising transaction by the Royals, but not entirely unexpected. Bubic had a pretty solid rookie debut in 2020, as he posted a 4.32 ERA, 2.23 K/BB ratio, and 0.5 fWAR in 50 innings of work, according to Fangraphs data. However, Bubic struggled in Cactus League play this year, as he had given up 14 hits and 8 runs in 7.1 IP this Spring. While Spring Training numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, a 8.59 ERA, 2.45 WHIP, and 4.9 K/9 metrics are hard to ignore, and probably concerned the Royals coaching staff that he wouldn’t be ready by Opening Day.
Thus, with the Royals not needing a fifth starter until April 16th (due to a bevy of off-days), it seems like the Royals are optioning Bubic to the Alternate Site to get some time to work on things before he is ready for a call up, as hinted in Anne Rogers’ recent story on Royals.com.
With Zuber and Bubic being optioned in the past seven days, it was only a matter of time before Lynch, Kowar, Isbel, and yes, even Witt, were optioned and/or assigned to Minor League camp. With the return of the Minor League season, and MLB returning to a 162-game model in 2021 after a shortened 2020 campaign, Moore and the Royals most likely are going to take a conservative route with their young players in 2021.
And it’s not because of service-time manipulation. Rather it’s about ensuring proper player development of the Royals’ most prized assets in their system, something Moore has focused on and championed ever since taking over as Royals general manager in 2006.
Being conservative with the Royals younger players may disappoint Royals fans who are highly excited for this season after four straight losing seasons.
That being said, what Moore and the Royals are doing is the right decision and let’s take a look at the reasons why.
The Royals are in a much different state as a team and clubhouse in 2021 than in 2020.
Going into 2020, the Royals were coming off back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons and were a team in flux. They had some interesting young talent in Adalberto Mondesi, Hunter Dozier, and Brad Keller, as well as some productive veterans such as Whit Merrifield, Jorge Soler, and Salvador Perez, the latter returning to the field after missing all of 2019 due to injury. But as a whole, the Royals were a sub-par club, with far too many holes in too many key spots to genuinely compete in the American League Central in 2020. And that proved to come to fruition last year, as the Royals finished 26-34, which would have equated to 70 wins over a pro-rated 162 game season.
Granted, the Royals saw improvement from 2019, but not a significant amount to seriously get excited about, initially. And thus, the Royals were left with two options: fill the holes with unproven, but young players with years of club control; or veterans whom the Royals could get on cheaper-than-usual deals due to the pandemic forcing clubs to be more frugal this off-season.
And thus, the Royals decided to go with the latter plan, which probably was the best course of action, especially after a lost Minor League season a year ago.
Honestly, none of the young players optioned over the past week are “behind” in any way. Yes, Bubic was surprising and did decently in 10 starts with the Royals a year ago. However, the Royals promoted him because he gave the club another left-handed look in the rotation after Duffy, and he proved to be the best option available at the Alternate Site. That need for the Royals went away after the acquisition of Minor this past off-season. As a result, Bubic can work on some things in extended Spring Training, which may be needed not only after a tough Spring, but some inconsistencies he showed on the bump in 2020. Bubic is far from a polished product, and the Royals are wise to not rush him to the Majors on Opening Day, even if the temptation may be to do so.
As for the other starters, while Lynch and Kowar have been surging as of late, they still need to hone their command and work on some things against non-MLB hitters in a competitive Minor League environment. In Cactus League play, Kowar posted a 6.97 ERA in 10.1 IP and Lynch posted an 8.38 ERA in in 9.2 IP. Comparatively, Brady Singer, who was arguably the Royals’ best starting pitcher down the stretch after Keller last year, posted a 3.75 ERA in 12 IP this Spring. Thus, while Singer showed this Spring he can handle the tribulations of a full Major League campaign for a solid straight season, Kowar and Lynch demonstrated that they are nearly there, but could use another month or two in the Minors of seasoning.
Lastly, Isbel and Witt are the most interesting cases because they actually succeeded this Spring at the plate for the most part. While Witt has stolen most of the headlines, Isbel has been really solid in right field, as he posted a .333 average, 1.054 OPS and hit two home runs in 17 games and 33 plate appearances. In addition, Isbel has demonstrated surprising pop this Spring, and even though he’ll start the season in the Minors, he could move up quickly should he carry this over to the Minor League regular season. Here’s a demonstration of his pop from a video on Twitter:
As for Witt, Royals fans have been in fervent debate all Spring about his candidacy for an Opening Day roster. However, while his three home runs and .289/.325/.526 slash in 40 plate appearances have been impressive, he also struck out 10 times, and only walked twice. Furthermore, Baseball Reference’s “Opponent Quality” stat for Witt is only 6.4, which is actually slightly below Double-A. Yes, Witt has had some memorable moments, including this home run off of Julio Urias of the Dodgers not too long ago:
That being said, Witt is far from a polished product who is ready for an everyday job at the Major League level. His 0.20 BB/K ratio is a flashback to his 0.37 BB/K ratio in 2019 in Arizona Rookie League play, which are both sub-par ratios. Yes, Witt is hitting well now despite those BB/K metrics. But would his lines maintain with an increase in competition at the MLB level? That is harder to believe, especially considering that Witt wouldn’t be surprising opposing teams anymore once the Royals’ Major League season begins on April 1st.
The young players on the Royals roster have had mixed Spring Training campaigns, which is pretty typical for any Major League organization. The Royals young pitching prospects (specifically Bubic, Lynch, and Kowar) showed some growing pains this Spring, but that is to be expected, especially as they continue to adjust their arms in preparation to a full 162-game season. That being said, the Royals hitting prospects, especially Isbel and Witt, showed some tremendous gains at the plate. And yet, despite their ability to hit Cactus League pitching, the Royals stayed conservative in their plan, and decided to keep them in the Minor Leagues to begin the year.
Despite these decisions, Moore still seems to be high and encouraged about the talent in this system after this Spring, especially Witt. That being said, if today’s words from Moore demonstrate anything, the Royals won’t jeopardize the long-term health of this organization just to satisfy short-term fan desires or wishes, as evidenced below:
The Royals are not alone in this approach. The Angels optioned top prospect Jo Addell, even though he had an impressive Spring Training campaign. It’s likely that Casey Mize and/or Tarik Skubal, two top pitching prospects in the Tigers system who made their debuts a year ago, could also start in the Minors (based on the Tigers’ Roster Resource Depth Chart). Teams know how rough the lack of a Minor League season was on their overall player development in their farm system, and with Minor League baseball coming back in 2021, MLB teams, including the Royals, are going to be safe and take full advantage, making sure that their top players get the player development that they lost out on in 2020.
There is a lot for Royals fans to be excited about for the upcoming season, especially in regard to the Royals’ younger players who are on the cusp of making an impact soon at the MLB level. However, it will be important for Royals fans to be patient and let the process for many of them play out in the Minors.
Rushing players in the farm system has rarely produced long-term results, and even Moore has realized and learned from doing that early-on in his career as the Royals’ general manager. Here is an interesting bit from a recent post from Clint Scoles of Royals Academy, who brought up the mistakes Moore and the Royals made with former first round pick Aaron Crow:
Crow, like Witt, had an odd year, missing time after not signing with the Nationals in 2008. When he signed with the Royals in 2009, he got sent out to Double-A, where he struggled, and got sent down to High-A in August. The Royals have since said they made a mistake moving Crow to Double-A instead of a lower level. Just a couple of seasons ago, when discussing Singer and crew’s assignment, GMDM stated they mishandled Crow and would avoid repeating that mistake in the future.“The Bobby Option” by Clint Scoles; Royals Academy
The Royals have invested a lot in the young talent in their system, and not just in Witt, but the pitching as well (especially Kowar, Lynch, and even Asa Lacy, who didn’t pitch an inning in Cactus League play). The Royals should be conservative with their young players this year. It would be a shame for the Royals to lose track as a system and their ability to build a sustainable roster for the future at the MLB level because the organization and fan base became too impatient. The Royals have a legitimate Top 10 farm system. The club needs to maintain such a system not just for this year, but years to come.
Because if they do, Moore’s “Process 2.0” could produce a winning model that will last longer and be more sustainable than “Process 1.0”.
Safe to say, that’s something all Royals fans could support.
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