The month of June will be coming to a close and the Royals are currently sitting with a 22-47 record overall after an 11-15 month of June. While this last month of play was the best month of baseball for the Royals winning percentage-wise (.423), this is a team that is clearly out of the playoff race. They are not only 13.5 games back of the division-leading Minnesota Twins, but they also have a 0.1 percent chance to make the postseason, according to Fangraphs.
As is the case with any rebuilding team during a lost season, the focus for the Royals appears to be on 2023 and beyond. That typically results in many veterans being available on the Trade market, especially leading up to the Trade Deadline, which will be August 2nd this year rather than July 31st, due to the lockout delaying the start of the MLB season.
The Royals have already jumpstarted the Major League “hot stove” season, as they traded first baseman Carlos Santana to the Seattle Mariners for minor league arms Wyatt Mills and William Fleming on Monday afternoon (which resulted in the call-up of Vinnie Pasquantino).
If that wasn’t enough, the “hot stove” has particularly ramped up with left fielder Andrew Benintendi, who is being mentioned as a trade possibility for a plethora of teams in both the American and National League. The most recent suitor appears to be the Toronto Blue Jays, who are in the thick of the postseason race in a tough AL East with the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays.
This could be a very “transactional” month for the Kansas City Royals, which is not the typical “modus operandi” for Royals president of baseball operations Dayton Moore, who tends to be more on the conservative end when it comes to in-season trades.
That being said, owner John Sherman talked with Royals Insider Josh Vernier on 610 AM radio on Thursday, and it seems like Sherman is expecting the Royals to change things up on the roster in the coming months, with the August 2nd Trade Deadline being one of those opportunities.
Royals fans should not just expect Benintendi to follow Santana out of Kansas City (especially since Benintendi will be a free agent after 2022). Rather, it is possible that Whit Merrifield, Michael A. Taylor, Scott Barlow, and perhaps even Brad Keller could be traded away before or by August 2nd.
Of course, that would leave some holes at the Major League level for the Royals, especially for the remainder of the season in August and September. While some prospects would be expected to fill in some spots (Nick Pratto being the prime one), it is also expected that some Royals on the 40-man roster will get an opportunity to prove that they can still be contributors to this Kansas City squad in 2023 and beyond.
However, they will have to produce those opportunities in the second half of the 2022 season, especially once those Kansas City mainstays are gone. If they continue to struggle or even regress, it is also possible that a few more names could be off the Kansas City 40-man roster by this Winter.
Let’s take a look at four players who could see an extra opportunity in Kansas City after the “trade season”, and what they would need to do to stay either in the Royals lineup or pitching staff when Spring Training arrives in 2023.
Nicky Lopez, 2B/INF
Traded Player Who Would Affect Him: Whit Merrifield
It has not been a rosy campaign for Nicky Lopez this season after a breakout 2021 campaign.
Last year, Lopez posted a slash of .300/.365/.378 with 106 wRC+. He also generated a 6.0 fWAR in 151 games, padded by a 28.1 Def rating (i.e. 28.1 defensive runs above average). Though he didn’t get a Gold Glove nomination at shortstop, the metrics showed that Lopez was one of the best middle infielders in the game last year.
Unfortunately, it’s been a sharp decline for Lopez in 2022 in all areas of his game.
His slash has fallen to .222/.289/.274 over 68 plate appearances, and his wRC+ is 63 as well. His trademark defense has also taken a hit, mostly due to Lopez rotating among the shortstop, second, and third base positions this season. He is still above average, as he is 1.7 runs above average according to Fangraphs’ Def, but he is nowhere near the elite fielder that he once was in 2021 (and perhaps even 2020, as he was 6.4 runs above average in 12 fewer games that year).
But make no mistake: Lopez’s cooled bat is the biggest reason why he’s played himself out of a regular starting position in 2022. If his offense was even average, he would be starting every day at second base. Unfortunately, due to his poor performance offensively, Whit has taken over the second base position over the past few weeks, probably in an effort to boost his trade value (his best position is second base).
If Whit gets traded, there likely will be a corresponding move from Triple-A. Michael Massey may be the popular pick among fans, but he only has 61 plate appearances in Omaha, as of Friday. Nonetheless, he is making plenty of noise with the Storm Chasers and offers a power profile that would be coveted at second base for years to come.
Clay Dungan could also be an option, albeit with less upside than Massey. Nonetheless, Lopez will probably get a chance to prove he can be the everyday second baseman once Whit is gone, with perhaps Dungan filling in as a utility player, much like Nicky is currently doing now.
In terms of plate discipline, Lopez is still posting a 0.52 BB/K ratio, which is not as good as a year ago (0.66), but better than his marks in 2019 (0.35) and 2020 (0.44). Cutting down on the K’s (14 percent) and increasing the hard hits (23 percent hard-hit rate) would help him immensely at the plate, especially if he should get an extended look again at the keyston in the wake of a Whit trade.
That being said, if he doesn’t deliver in the second-half, it’s not out of the question to think that Lopez could be a roster casualty in the offseason, especially Dungan and Massey likely to compete for the starting second-base position in 2023. The Royals and Lopez had a long-lasting arbitration battle this year, and the Royals could be prompted to move on sooner rather than later with Lopez, especially if they want to avoid that year-to-year headache.
Edward Olivares, OF
Traded Players Who Would Affect Him: Andrew Benintendi and Michael A. Taylor
Olivares has always been an enigma in the Royals’ organization ever since being acquired from San Diego in the Trevor Rosenthal deal back in 2020. Olivares has slowly gotten better at the plate, as he has improved his wRC+ from 71 in 2020 to 87 in 2021 to a ridiculous 140 so far in 2022 through 20 games and 55 plate appearances.
Olivares is seeing a lot of batted-ball luck (.368 BABIP). Nonetheless, he is hitting the ball harder than ever (50 percent hard-hit rate) as well as barreling more balls to boot (10 percent barrel rate). So the core power tools are developing, which is a promising sign.
On the other hand, Olivares is the typical “Royals-esque” hitter, even though he was originally developed by the Blue Jays and Padres. He is striking out 21.8 percent of the time, and his BB/K ratio is paltry at 0.17. While his contact rate is up from 78.6 percent in 2021 to 80 percent in 2022, he’s swinging out of the strike zone 37.4 percent of the time, which is a 5.6 percent increase.
With that kind of profile, it is likely Olivares’ numbers will regress, especially as he accumulates more at-bats. And unlike Kyle Isbel, Olivares doesn’t have the defensive profile to back him up, as Olivares has already been 2.6 runs below average this year, according to Fangraphs’ Def.
The trades of Bentinendi and/or Taylor will open up playing time not just for Olivares, but Isbel and perhaps Nick Pratto, who’s been getting more and more time in the corner outfield positions in Omaha this year. While Olivares got off to a good start, he will need to continue to mash to justify regular playing time in the field (and not just against left-handed pitchers).
When he connects with the ball, Olivares can be one of the most exciting players on this Royals roster, as evidenced by this bomb at Kauffman Stadium in his first game back.
He doesn’t have to hit home runs all the time. However, he does need to show that power profile consistently, especially since he’s most likely a corner infielder due to his defensive limitations.
Olivares will be out of Minor League options next season, which puts him and the Royals in a predicament if he cannot solidify a regular position in the outfield by 2023. If Olivares does not wow over the final three months of the Major League season, it is possible that he also could be a Winter non-tender candidate, especially if Pratto comes up and does well in his Major League debut, which will come at some point after Benintendi and/or Taylor are traded.
Josh Staumont, RP
Traded Player Who Would Affect Him: Scott Barlow
Initially, I thought Staumont would be a trade candidate, especially after posting sub-three ERA numbers in 2020 and 2021. However, he’s seen some regression this year, as his ERA is back up to 3.81 in 29 appearances and 26 innings of work (he’s accumulated a 0.4 fWAR this year).
In addition to not being as sharp as a season ago, Staumont has also been beset by injuries. He’s currently on the IL due to a neck strain, and one has to wonder how much that has affected his performance in June. He’s only pitched 7.1 innings, and he’s walking more than he’s striking out, as his 0.71 K/BB ratio is an alarming sign. This lackluster ratio is not just fueled by a three-point jump in BB/9, but a 7.83 drop in K/9.
That latter number is NOT a good sign, especially for a pitcher who relies on the strikeout as much as Staumont.
Therefore, I am not sure how much value Staumont will have with potential suitors, especially with these health concerns.
On the other hand, it seems like it’s more likely that Scott Barlow WILL be traded, especially with the need around the league for quality bullpen arms (cough…Minnesota…cough). If Barlow is dealt, that will leave a hole at the closer’s spot, and naturally, the next man up would be Staumont, if healthy. When he’s fully healthy and dealing, Staumont can be one of the most intimidating pitchers in the league, as evidenced below:
Unfortunately, Staumont has always been wildly inconsistent, and he also has struggled in big, pressure-filled spots in the late innings as well. When it comes to context-neutral wins (WPA/LI), Staumont (-0.35) has been only better than Foster Griffin (-0.44) and Jake Brentz (-0.58). That is not a good sign that Staumont can handle being the Royals’ closer in the short, as well as long term.
Dylan Coleman has bounced back after a slow start, and Jose Cuas and Taylor Clarke are looking better, which could make Staumont more expendable when he returns from the IL.
I think Staumont will make it through the end of the season with the Royals, but I expect the clock to be ticking for Staumont, especially if he doesn’t bounce back in the second half of 2022 (he will be hitting arbitration for the first time next offseason).
Kris Bubic, SP
Traded Player Who Would Affect Him: Brad Keller
Daniel Lynch is currently on the IL, but if there’s a candidate on the rotation who’s likely to lose their spot when they return, it’s none other than Bubic.
And the metrics back it up.
Bubic is posting a ridiculous 7.45 in 11 appearances (10 starts) and 38.2 IP this season. His BB/9 is a career-high at 5.35 this year, and his K/BB ratio is a career-low at 1.43. Thus, it’s not surprising that his FIP (5.56), xERA (6.00), and SIERA (5.09) are also quite unimpressive this season as well.
Throwing strikes has been Bubic’s primary struggle this year, as he is generating a CSW (called strike plus whiff) rate of 23.9 percent, which is 3.1 percentage points down from a year ago. His swinging-strike rate of 7.4 percent is 3.7 percent below league average as well. To make matters worse, when he is throwing strikes, hitters are hitting his pitches harder than ever before. His hard-hit rate allowed is up 8.1 percent, and his HR/9 is 55 points higher than the league average.
Bubic is doing nothing right in the Royals rotation, and it’s probably a matter of time before he is back in Omaha.
That being said, Keller has been a popular name on the trade market, as he is a pitcher who can eat innings and throw strikes, even if he has his own command flaws as well. There is a dire need for starting pitching from a plethora of teams, and it’s possible, with the Royals pitching depth in their organization, that they will part with Keller if the price is right. After all, Keller will be entering his last year of arbitration next year, and I doubt the Royals sign him to a long-term deal, especially with so many arms available in Kansas City and Omaha (and perhaps even from Northwest Arkansas).
If Keller does get traded, that could give Bubic another extended shot, and he salvaged his 2021 with a solid finish to the year. It’s possible that Bubic could do it again, with the idea that a second strong finish is exactly what he needs to turn it around long-term at the Major League level.
However, Bubic has serious pitch mix problems, as his four-seamer lacks velocity and effectiveness. The pitch only averages 91.6 MPH and is generating a run value of +13, according to Savant. In fact, his four-seamer is the fifth-worst four-seamer in baseball, according to Savant’s run value metrics.
Here’s a look at the “bottom 11” (and notice how Carlos Hernandez is on there as well).
Without premium velocity, pitch command is so key for Bubic when it comes to making his four-seamer an effective pitch. That somewhat happened last year, as he had a -7 run value on the pitch.
But in 2022, it’s been the polar opposite with his four-seamer, with this home run below by Texas’ Mitch Garver in Bubic’s last start a prime example of when Bubic combines lackluster command with below-average velocity (it clocked in at 89.5 MPH).
Right now, it seems like Lynch and Brady Singer are solidified in the rotation, with Jon Heasley perhaps reaching that status if he can bounce back after a rough start against the Rangers. Keller being traded should give an extended opportunity to one of Kansas City’s young pitchers, with Bubic, Hernandez, Austin Cox, and maybe Drew Parrish battling for that spot that would be left vacant after a potential Keller trade.
Bubic has the best track record of the four, but he’s also trending in the wrong direction in comparison to Hernandez (who’s been better in Omaha) as well as Cox and Parrish.
If Bubic doesn’t make the most of another opportunity in the rotation (especially if Keller is traded), then the Royals may have to make a hard decision with him.
That could be a transition to the bullpen or perhaps being traded to another organization to make room for the Royals to add another young pitcher to the 40-man roster prior to Opening Day in 2023.
Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn/AP