The Royals will be looking to avoid being swept on Thursday against the Cleveland “soon-to-be” Guardians, though it certainly won’t be easy, as the Royals will face Triston McKenzie, who has been much better in the second half of the year, now that he’s got his control more in check (he’s only walked 7 batters in 42 innings in the second half after walking 40 in 49.1 IP in the first half). In addition to preventing being swept at Kauffman Stadium, the Royals are also looking to snap a ten-game losing streak against Cleveland, as they are 1-10 against their division rivals from Northern Ohio this season, going into Thursday’s contest.
The season series with Cleveland has been a frustrating one for Royals fans. While the Royals have held their own against the rest of the division, they have immensely struggled against Cleveland, a team that is only 66-64, and is 10 games behind the first place Chicago White Sox in the AL Central division.
Theoretically, one would think that Royals would do okay against Cleveland, especially since they jettisoned former franchise shortstop Francisco Lindor this off-season, and they also lost manager Terry Francona to health reasons for a second-straight season. However, Cleveland has just been a thorn in Kansas City’s side through 11 games this year, and it doesn’t seem optimistic that the Royals will do much better in terms of evening up the season series by the end of the season, especially with only two more series matchups looming between the two teams in 2021.
That being said, while the Royals’ lack of success against Cleveland is a source of frustration for Royals fans, especially this year, the Royals’ main foil in 2021 could be a source of inspiration for the Royals in terms of building a winning club in 2022 and perhaps beyond.
Because the Royals profile very similarly to Cleveland, and the emergence of a strong and confident Jackson Kowar could help close that gap between Cleveland and Royals in 2022, especially if Kowar continues to pitch as well as he did in his MLB return.
One of the reasons I say that Cleveland and Kansas City profile similarly is mostly due to the fact that neither team has been a great offensive club this year. According to Fangraphs, Cleveland ranks 11th in the AL in wRC+ (93), while the Royals rank 14th (87). Cleveland has been a bit better when it comes to isolated slugging (.174 to the Royals’ .145) and the long ball (170 home runs to the Royals’ 135). Kansas City on the other hand has been stronger when it comes to stealing bases (99 to Cleveland’s 83) and batting average (.244 to Cleveland’s .237). Regardless of their different offensive “styles”, they still have been mediocre at best offensive teams in 2021.
However, Cleveland has won 17 more games than the Royals, and have won 10 out of 11 matchups head-to-head in 2021. How is that possible, if they both are relatively the same team on an offensive end?
Two words: pitching depth.
Cleveland’s pitching depth is something to behold, especially from a Royals fan’s perspective. And honestly, it is a key reason why this club is anywhere around .500 as of September 2nd.
To be frank, the Cleveland bullpen has been better than their rotation, as their bullpen ranks 7th in reliever ERA while the rotation ranks 22nd in starter ERA, according to Fangraphs. That being said, Cleveland has been absolutely decimated by injuries and inconsistency this year, and the fact that they are ranked that high in those categories, respectively, is a minor miracle.
Cy Young winner Shane Bieber has only pitched in 14 games and accumulated 90.2 IP before landing on the 60-Day IL. Aaron Civale, who was having a bit of a breakout by posting a 3.32 ERA in 15 starts, also is on the 60-Day IL, and has been out since June 22nd. Nick Sandlin was posting a solid season out of the bullpen (2.94 ERA in 34 appearances) before landing on the IL in mid-August due to a shoulder strain.
Furthermore, Cleveland also has failed to get strong performances from pitchers who contributed heavily in 2020. James Karinchak was expected to compete for the closer’s role in the Spring. However, he has struggled so much since MLB cracked down on foreign substances, and is now working on things in Triple-A. And while McKenzie is doing fine now, early on in the season, his control made Rick Vaughn from “Major League” look like Jamie Moyer.
One would think with all those factors happening, Cleveland’s pitching would be near the bottom of the league. And yet, they have persevered because of their tremendous depth in both the rotation and bullpen. In addition to McKenzie, Cal Quantrill and Zach Plesac have picked up the slack in Bieber and Civale’s absence. Furthermore, over the last 14 days, Sam Hentges and Logan Allen have provided some solid production on the mound. In terms of the bullpen, Emmanual Clase has carried the load in the ninth amid Karinchak’s struggles, but the bullpen has also got solid contributions from Nick Wittgren, Bryan Shaw, and former Rule 5 pick Trevor Stephan.
Would Cleveland be better if Bieber and Civale were healthy? Would the bullpen be better if Karinchak hadn’t fallen off a cliff? Absolutely in both cases. That being said, Cleveland’s ability to build pitching depth in their farm system has been the club’s saving grace and has kept them competitive, even amidst such a stretch of bad fortune roster-wise. In addition to Bieber and Civale, McKenzie, and sixth-pitcher Eli Morgan were Cleveland draft picks, and Quantrill and Allen were both acquired in what seemed like payroll-shedding trades at the time. Lastly, Wittgren and Clase were also acquired in trades that weren’t heralded, but have looked better when examined in retrospect.
Cleveland most likely will not make the playoffs this year, but they have been a competitive team because they have built such solid reserves in the system when it comes to pitching. Yes, they have Jose Ramirez and Franmil Reyes, who have carried the club on an offensive end. However, the rest of the lineup has been supplied by castoffs from other organizations and products from within the system who are finally getting an opportunity after languishing behind more established veterans in the previous couple of years. This approach has not only netted “good enough” offense to help them win games, but also has proven to be cost-efficient as well, as their payroll is only $51 million, one of the paltriest in the league.
Everyone talks about Oakland and Tampa Bay when it comes to teams performing well consistently on the cheap. And yet, Cleveland is one organization that often gets overlooked that has been successful as well despite their meager payroll.
Furthermore, it’s also an organization that the Royals could replicate easier than Oakland or Tampa Bay, especially within the next year.
Jackson Kowar was pretty darn good on Wednesday, as he produced a quality start in his return to Kansas City, even though the Royals didn’t get the win (the bullpen couldn’t hold the lead for him). Kowar looked way more confident in his second MLB stint, and it showed in his whiff and CSW rates on Wednesday evening:
The addition of Kowar to the rotation gives the Royals an incredibly deep pitching staff that could be the envy of everyone in 2022, especially in the American League Central (which says something considering Cleveland’s own pitching depth). Daniel Lynch and Carlos Hernandez have demonstrated 1-2 starter potential this year, and Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, even though they have had their shares of ups and down this year, have also demonstrated that they can be solid 3 to 4 options in the rotation. And that’s not counting Brad Keller, who’s been much stronger in the second half, though his recent IL stint does make one worry that he may be out for a long time. Lastly, even though Mike Minor hasn’t really been great (though not terrible), he does offer a lot of depth, and it’s possible he could be a good swing option in 2022 (i.e. a guy who could start or be effective out of the bullpen).
So what do the Royals need to do to be more like Cleveland? Well, they need to make some shrewd moves to boost the bullpen, though Dayton Moore has started that process by nabbing Domingo Tapia from the Mariners and Joel Payamps from the Blue Jays, who have both been surprisingly effective relievers for the Royals this year. While Scott Barlow and Josh Staumont have been dependable options in the late innings (especially lately), and Jake Brentz has been decent, though he’s struggled more recently, the Royals could still use another couple of arms who can be dependable in the last few innings. Maybe they could get that when Ronald Bolanos returns off the IL (whether that’s in September or in 2022). However, it’s likely that the Royals may need to explore a trade or two in order to help them get another bullpen arm who could be effective, but still affordable.
The Royals haven’t gotten a lot from their offense, but honestly, they don’t need to do a whole lot of upgrading. They just need some bounce back performances in 2022, especially from Carlos Santana, Andrew Benintendi, Adalberto Mondesi and Hunter Dozier. And if they don’t get those performances? Then the Royals need to simply look to the system, and give some chances to cheaper and younger options such as Bobby Witt, Jr., MJ Melendez, Kyle Isbel, and Nick Pratto. That’s what Cleveland did, and it has produced some results, even if it didn’t get them playoff-bound in 2021.
The “Cleveland” model is a strategy that makes sense for the Royals on many levels, especially with John Sherman, the current owner of the Royals, formerly being involved in the Cleveland ownership group. Now, the Royals aren’t total penny-pinchers like the Dolan family, who owns the Cleveland baseball organization. And that should give the Royals more flexibility, especially when it comes to upgrading the roster in key spots.
But the answer to success in 2022 is not through free agents or “mega trades”. It should involve trusting the pitching depth, boosting the bullpen with a couple of small, but key moves, and either getting improved performances from the players on the active roster, or replacing them from players within their system, many who are near MLB-ready.
The method has worked for Cleveland over the past decade…
Let’s see if the Royals can employ a similar method in 2022 and thus, find similar success over the next decade as well…
Even a half-decade would be good enough, honestly, for Royals fans.
Especially considering how painful the past five seasons have been.
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