The Royals are tied with the Cincinnati Reds for the worst record in baseball at 16-31, as of Monday, May 31st.
You read that correctly. And it’s not just the record that’s bad. The Royals’ run differential is actually the worst in baseball, as The Athletic’s Alec Lewis alluded on Twitter on Tuesday morning:
After going 74-88 last season, hopes were not exactly “high” among realistic Royals fans.
Sure, the Royals acquired Zack Greinke and Amir Garrett to boost the pitching staff, and Bobby Witt Jr’s debut was highly anticipated. That being said, most Royals fans only expected moderate improvement in 2022, even if it meant another playoff-less season, and most likely sub-.500 campaign.
Now, we are roughly two months into the Major League baseball season, and the Royals are posting 0.2 percent odds to win the division and 0.4 percent odds to make the postseason, according to Fangraphs. While there still are 115 games left in the MLB regular season, it’s likely that Royals management, as well as Royals fans, will need to temper the expectations for the remainder of the season.
So what should Royals fans be hoping for from this club, even in an division that appears to be a mess beyond the Minnesota Twins, who seem entrenched in first place in the AL Central division by five games over the second-place Chicago White Sox?
In this post, I take a look at three things that Royals fans should be hoping for, and try to take a positive spin on it, which isn’t easy for a club that is 15 games under .500 going into Tuesday’s game against the Guardains. I am not going to talk about firing any coach, manager or front office member in this post, even though I know it may be tempting to do so.
Considering the circumstances and the demeanor of this Royals organization, especially in the front office, it is likely that nothing will happen on that end until the end of the season, if anything happens at all.
Instead, I will be looking at things that Royals fans should “realistically” expect, which hopefully could bring a positive angle to Royals baseball for the months of June through October.
Expect 65-70 Wins From This Club
After 47 games, the Royals are not far off from the 2018 and 2019 Kansas City Royals, who lost 104 and 103 games, respectively, as I Tweeted after yesterday’s 7-3 loss to Cleveland.
It’s easy to think that the Royals will lose 100-plus this season, which could be even more inevitable if Andrew Benintendi is traded by the July Trade Deadline (which is seeming like a foregone conclusion in baseball media circles).
However, while the Royals at the 47-game mark seemed destined for 100-plus losses, I would say the picture looks rosier than Royals fans may think.
First off, despite the struggles of the first couple of months, Depth Charts on Fangraphs is still projecting the Royals to win 68 games. PECOTA of Baseball Prospectus is projecting 65. Grante,d the Royals have under-performed their pre-season predictions (the projections were around 72-73 initially), but it’s not as grim as Royals fans may think. Even if they get unlucky in a couple of games, it’s still more-than-likely that they can avoid that dreaded 100-plus loss mark in 2022 by season’s end.
What could solidify the Royals’ chances to win 65-70 games may be a change at the first-base position, which I already talked about in a post on Monday.
Here’s how Depth Charts on Fangraphs projects the Royals’ first-base playing-time and production for each player at the position for the rest of the season.
Obviously, the Santana 224 plate appearance projection makes Royals fans shriek. On the other hand, the wOBA projections for Pasquantino (.359) and even Pratto (.326) are positive, and that should make Royals fans optimistic about this club’s outlook for the rest of the season, as well as 2023, once Santana is off the payroll.
Unfortunately, it’s anyone’s guess when that is, though Tuesday’s lineup is a step in the right direction (i.e. it’s missing Santana and Ryan O’Hearn).
Once Pratto and Pasquantino make their Royals debuts, it’s possible that the Royals will have a higher percentage of touching that 70-win mark, which could be a silver lining in an otherwise disappointing campaign.
The lineup is chock full of young position players, which has made this club exciting to follow, despite the losses. Bobby Witt, Jr. (104 wRC+; 1.2 fWAR), MJ Melendez (133 wRC+; 0.4 fWAR), Edward Olivares (166 wRC+; 0.5 fWAR), and Kyle Isbel (82 wRC+; 0.2 fWAR) are examples of Royals position players who have rejuvenated the Royals offensively since the Terry Bradshaw coaching change.
It’ll be interesting to see how the lineup continues to develop and get better once Santana is out, and Pratto and Pasquantino come aboard, whether it’s together, or separately this season.
The Bullpen Will Find Reinforcements (And Get Better As a Result)
The bullpen hasn’t been good this year, and that is evident in the rankings, which can be found via Fangraphs:
The ERA, WHIP, BB/9, and H/9 are obviously depressing. However, the Royals bullpen is still limiting the longball and striking out a decent amount of hitters, despite their struggles.
Here’s what Royals relievers have looked like so far this season, according to Fangraphs as of May 31st:
As one can see, three relievers who were expected to contribute heavily to the bullpen on Opening Day (Taylor Clarke; Collin Snider; and Dylan Colleman) have combined to produce a -0.6 fWAR over 52.2 innings pitched this season. Thus, it’s not a surprise that the Royals bullpen has struggled so immensely as a group this season.
That being said, we’re already starting to see some changes in Mike Matheny’s usage of the bullpen, which has included the trio above.
Clarke has already been taken out of high-leverage moments, and though Snider was used on Monday, it’s likely that he may see less time in such situations, especially after giving up a three-run home run to Cleveland’s Andres Gimenez which essentially sealed the game.
As for Coleman? He was demoted to Triple-A for a brief spell before being called up due to COVID/sickness issues affecting many pitchers on the Royals pitching staff. It is likely that he will return to Omaha for a brief stint once the Royals bullpen returns to full strength.
While the three have struggled, it’s not a surprise to see relievers who were dubbed initially to be setup men struggle in the beginning of the season and see their roles change.
Greg Holland, Kyle Zimmer, and Wade Davis were examples of such relievers a year ago, who found new, lower-leverage roles later in the season. In their place, Matheny was able to utilize Domingo Tapia, Richard Lovelady (pre-injury) and Jake Brentz in their place, which helped turned things around in the Royals bullpen last season.
The Royals could have such reinforcements this season. Matt Peacock hasn’t allowed a run in three innings of work (though he’s currently on the COVID IL). Arodys Vizcaino showcased some electric stuff in his Royals debut, with a fastball touching the 99 MPH mark on frequent occasion, as well as a nasty slider that generated some whiffs.
And Jose Cuas is an interesting story who could easily be a fan favorite in Kansas City. Not only is he a groundball specialist who produced a 1.74 ERA in 20.2 IP in Omaha this year, but he is a former position player prospect who converted to pitcher in 2018.
If Peacock, Vizcaino, and Cuas can offer some production in the bullpen, and if Scott Barlow, Josh Staumount, and Amir Garrett can continue to be solid (though not as great as a year ago, especially in Barlow and Staumont’s cases), then it’s likely that the Royals bullpen will look a lot better by season’s end.
And perhaps the transition to lower leverage roles can also recoup Clarke, Snider, and Coleman’s seasons’ as well, which also will make the Royals bullpen stronger over the course of the 2022 campaign.
Young Starters Succeeding Despite Eldred?
The Royals rotation took a huge blow on Monday as the Royals announced that Zack Greinke would be added to the 15-day IL due to foream issues.
It hasn’t been a great season for Greinke in his return to Kansas City, as he is 0-4 with a 5.05 ERA in 10 starts and 51.2 IP this year. However, his FIP (4.63) is slightly better than his ERA, and he was still generating a 0.4 fWAR, despite a rough string of recent outings. While Greinke isn’t the Greinke Royals fans once knew, hopefully, he can return to the rotation healthy at some point this season, and still be a presence at the top of the rotation.
Whether Greinke returns or not, the fortunes of this Royals club this year could hinge heavily on the starting rotation, especially the young starters.
Thankfully, things have been going much better recently for the young group.
After a slow start, Brady Singer leads Royals starting pitchers in fWAR at 0.7, according to Fangraphs. For the year as a starter, Singer is posting a 1.37 ERA, 2.22 FIP, 9.15 K/9, and 6.67 K/BB ratio in three starts and 19.2 IP. His stuff has looked electric, and his more-used changeup has given Singer a stronger arsenal that bodes well for long-term success in Kansas City.
Singer is not alone, however.
Daniel Lynch has been solid, as he is posting a 3.92 ERA, 4.03 FIP, and 0.5 fWAR over eight starts and 39 IP this season. Lynch has had some up-and-down outings, and can exhaust his pitch counts early on occasion. That being said, he has done a much better job of handling adversity and bouncing back, especially in comparison to his rookie season in 2021.
Jon Heasley’s numbers look ugly at the surface level. He is generating more walks (7.45 BB/) than strikeouts (4.66) and his 6.76 FIP suggests that he’s been luckier than his ERA (4.66) so far this season in 19.1 innings of work. On the other hand, Heasley had arguably his best start of the season against Cleveland on Monday, and hopefully, that can lead to a cut down in walks, which would go a long ways in terms of helping improve his overall line.
After all, Heasley was known for not walking guys in the Minors, so it could be a confidence or pitch-mix issue that is causing this abnormal walk rate at the Major League level.
And even though Jackson Kowar, Kris Bubic, and Carlos Hernandez are down in Triple-A Omaha, all three are showing signs of progress, as they each work on specific mechanical and/or pitch-mix issues. Kowar seems to be most ready of the three, and could be up soon in the wake of Greinke’s injury. That being said, Royals fans shouldn’t sleep on Bubic and Hernandez, who could also see a strong return to the rotation, much like Singer who got some much-needed development in Omaha at the beginning of 2022.
Of course, the only roadblock to this situation could be Cal Eldred, the Royals’ much maligned pitching coach.
And yet, Singer and Lynch have been able to overcome Eldred’s “influence” so far this year.
With enough work in Omaha, and perhaps with some more time around Greinke, who will be on the shelf probably for a little bit, perhaps Heasley, Kowar, Bubic, and Hernandez can follow Singer and Lynch’s lead.
If the starting pitching can be a STRENGTH of this team, the Royals could have a strong second-half in store after the All-Star break.
Hopefully though, it’s not too strong that it keeps Eldred around for another year.
Photo Credit: Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports