So I’m officially done teaching and coaching (our high school team lost in the first round of the Kansas state 3A playoffs…bittersweet). And thus, that opens up a little more time for me for writing, which has been a little inconsistent due to the end of the school year as a teacher, coach, and graduate student.
The Royals lost two of three to the Tampa Bay Rays, which is tough, but honestly not surprising. The Rays are the best team in the AL Central, and the fact that the Royals were able to take at least one (and got promising starts from Brad Keller and Mike Minor to boot) should be cause for some minor celebration. That being said, this Twins series is critical for Kansas City, as the Twins have been slowly climbing back up the standings in the AL Central, as they sit currently 20-29 and are now ahead of the Detroit Tigers.
That being said, what should Royals fans look for over Memorial Day weekend at Target Field (though they play on Memorial Day back at Kauffman Stadium)? Here are three important things to pay attention to over the Royals’ last three games of this road trip which ends in the Upper Midwest.
Who will start Saturday’s contest?
Brady Singer had a rough outing on Thursday, as he gave up six runs on four hits and two walks in 2.2 innings of work in the finale in Tampa Bay. As a result of the short outing, Jakob Junis was thrust into action, as he went 2.1 IP and allowed only one run over that duration (though he did walk three and give up three hits). The appearances by Junis and 46 pitches of work pretty much eliminates him from a slated Saturday start, which means the Royals now have an open rotation spot on Saturday, as mentioned below:
The most plausible option could be Ervin Santana, who only threw 18 pitches on Thursday and has not pitched all that much recently. While Santana has worked more out of the bullpen this year he has the ability to start and has made one already this year. However, David Lesky of Inside the Crown suggested that perhaps Jackson Kowar could be an option on Saturday.
Kowar is off to a great start this year in Omaha as he is 4-0 in four starts with a 1.25 ERA and 1.56 FIP, according to Fangraphs. While the struggles of Daniel Lynch in Kansas City may make Dayton Moore hesitate at the decision, it would not be surprising to see Moore call up Kowar for the start on Saturday, especially considering how crucial this series may be in order to stunt Minnesota’s recent momentum. Santana may be the easiest option transaction-wise, especially since he is on the active roster currently. That being said, he has succeeded in limiting the damage in more low leverage situations, and is more of a “pitch to contact” kind of guy. Considering the Twins rank 8th in OPS and 6th in home runs, Santana may not be the best option against a lineup of this caliber, even if they have been a bit up and down this year.
Of course, if the Royals do call up Kowar, that means the Royals have to clear roster space. Who would be on the chopping block? Well, Jake Newberry could be a roster casualty, especially since he hasn’t pitched all that much in Kansas City, and he’s struggled this year even when given the opportunity. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see if Moore will give Kowar his first MLB start on Saturday, or if he will delay it a little bit further in order to let Kowar continue to build confidence in Triple-A.
Will Jorge Soler snap out of this slump?
No player has been more polarizing this year than Jorge Soler, who statistically speaking is one of the worst players right now not just for the Royals, but in baseball as a whole. Max Rieper of Royals Review posted a great story about Soler’s struggles and how this funk has not only been a 2021 thing, but has actually been an extension from 2020:
Here is a key quote that captures not only the spirit of the piece, but also my thoughts currently about Soler as well:
And this season he is off to his worst start of all. He has a putrid line of .175/.258/.319. There are 153 qualified hitters in baseball, and Soler ranks ahead of just seven of them in wRC+. Because of his defensive limitations, he is dead last in WAR, according to Fangraphs. You don’t need analytics to tell you that a player that can’t hit and can’t field is the least valuable player in baseball.“What Can Be Done About Jorge Soler?” by Max Rieper; Royals Review
Right now, the Royals have already made some movement to lessen the damage Soler has brought to the lineup. Mike Matheny has moved him down to the six and seven spots in the lineup, and yet, that hasn’t done much good recently, as he went 0-4 with two strikeouts in the final game of the Rays series. Right now, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Matheny bench him a game to help Soler clear his head, but then again, Matheny has been loyal to the “star” players on the Royals roster. Matheny continued to support Adalberto Mondesi last year despite his struggles, and it proved to be the right call, as Mondesi went on a tear in the second half of the season. So even though fans are clamoring for Soler to be benched, Matheny may continue to give Soler at-bats, much like he did with Mondesi a year ago.
Whether Soler gets a day or two off or continues to get at-bats in Minnesota, this much is certain: he needs to hit and hit soon if the Royals want to stay in contention in the Central. Will he finally get his groove back against the Twins? Or will he continue to struggle with only brief flashes of promise here and there throughout the season?
This series could be really telling not just for the Royals, but Soler and his future in Kansas City this year and beyond.
Will the lineup see more changes?
The dropping of Soler in the batting order is not the only development in the Royals lineup. Right now, other than Carlos Santana in the two spot, and Andrew Benintendi in the three spot, the Royals have struggled to get recent production from their other seven hitters.
Whit Merrifield is only batting .249 with an OBP of .319 and while he is a stolen base machine (14 total), one has to wonder if a switch in the lineup could help him turn things around. Mondesi is also an interesting one as well, as he hit fifth in the finale against Tampa Bay after hitting seventh in his first two games of the year. Could Matheny move Mondesi to the top of the lineup to both boost Mondi and help alleviate some of the pressure off Whit? Or will Matheny continue to stay conservative and keep Whit at the leadoff spot, despite the recent struggles.
Right now, the Royals do need a boost beyond Santana and Benintendi, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Matheny test the waters with different combinations, especially with two series against the Twins over the next two weekends (they play the Twins at Kauffman next weekend). Even Salvador Perez, who has been an offensive catalyst for this team this year and last, has seen some struggles recently at the plate. While he is a big bopper and run producer for Kansas City (nine home runs, second only to Santana), he is striking out 26.5 percent of the time at the plate this year, according to Fangraphs, which would be a career high. The Royals need production in that cleanup spot, and while Salvy has been a huge boost at times, his high strikeout rates have made him a rally-killer at times.
The Royals will need some offensive production this series, especially considering the Royals’ starting pitching concerns going into this series, and the Twins’ offensive surge as of late. Don’t be surprised if Matheny mixes things up lineup-wise, especially with the return of Mondesi, in order to gives this Royals lineup a jolt of life in this import inter-divisional series.