The MLB Draft and All-Star Break are officially over, and baseball games started again on Thursday afternoon. However, the Royals will have to wait until Friday before their second half of 2022 officially begins, as they start a six-game homestand against the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Angels.
The Royals are 36-56, which is good for last in the AL Central as of Thursday (and the Tigers won the first game of a doubleheader against the A’s, so the Royals will still be in last when they play against the Rays on Friday). According to Fangraphs, the Royals are projected to finish the year 68-94, which is better than their 100-plus loss marks in 2018 and 2019, but still pretty disappointing for a club looking to improve upon a 74-88 record in 2021.
Hence, it is safe to say that the Royals are squarely in “rebuilding” mode and have been for at least a couple of months.
Every move they will and should make from here on out should be with the future in mind, even if it may cost the Royals some wins in the short term. Even though the Royals lost three of four in Toronto in their last series before the All-Star break, Royals fans were at least excited to see the young group produce and show some promise of what could be on the horizon in Kansas City in 2023 and beyond.
With 70 games remaining, what should Royals fans expect?
In this post, I am going to make five bold predictions about what will happen with this Kansas City team, not just leading up to the Trade Deadline on August 2nd, but in the final months of August and September as well.
Royals Fans Will Be Happy With the Andrew Benintendi Trade Return at the Deadline
With the Draft and All-Star game behind us, JJ Picollo and the Royals front office’s main focus, for now, is the August 2nd Trade Deadline. The Royals’ front office’s goal will be to re-tool this roster in order to fit the club’s long-term vision (which was seen partially in the four-game series in Toronto).
This means that Andrew Benintendi is their number one trade priority.
Benintendi was the Royals’ lone All-Star, and it makes sense considering he posted a .317/.386/.401 slash in 363 plate appearances so far this season. Granted, the power is not great (he has hit only three home runs), and the speed isn’t what it once was either (two stolen bases), but he has showcased one of the best hit tools in the league in 2022, and he did earn an AL Gold Glove in 2021.
The Royals left fielder has been linked to numerous teams, both in the American and National League, but it seems like a trade to an NL team is likely, especially with Benintendi unable to play in or against Toronto due to his vaccination status.
The Brewers have been a popular destination pick for Benny, especially considering the lack of production they have seen in the outfield in 2022 (Andrew McCutcheon and Christian Yelich aren’t what they once were).
The Padres have also been a widely-rumored destination for Benintendi, especially with them in the thick of the NL West race with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Judging by the suitors and possible trade packages, it is likely that the Royals and Royals fans will be happy with the return the Royals get.
The Padres and Brewers for example have pretty good farm systems and could send numerous players to Kansas City in exchange for Benintendi’s services. Both teams are also desperate for any kind of jolt, especially since they are looking to do some damage in the postseason after failing to go far a season ago.
The Brewers and Padres have yet to win a World Series, and they are the kind of clubs who will do all they can in order to flip that narrative by the end of the postseason. That kind of desperation could benefit the Royals in the long term, especially if they can get the right combination of prospects.
Whit Merrifield and Michael A. Taylor Will Net Underwhelming Trade Returns
Prior to the Toronto series, I thought it was highly likely that the Royals would trade away both Merrifield and Taylor. Of course, I also could’ve seen the Royals keeping them if the market wasn’t quite right for the pair.
After the hoopla though with their unvaccinated status, as well as Whit’s comments which draw the ire of the Royals’ online fanbase, I think it’s a done deal that both Kansas City regulars will be gone by August 2nd.
The strong performances of Nate Eaton and Michael Massey in Toronto also should expedite both Merrifield and Taylor’s departure from the Royals organization, as Royals fans want to see Eaton and Massey in center field and second base for the remainder of the season (as well as beyond).
That being said, while Picollo will probably be able to trade away both Whit and Taylor, I do not think the return will be what Royals fans expected prior to the “vaccine gate” a week ago.
Whit comparatively is at least generating “some” trade buzz, as MLB Trade Rumors posted an article about possible trade fits for Merrifield today, as the White Sox, Dodgers, Giants, Brewers, and Mariners being mentioned as the “best” fits for Whit and his talents.
The trade rumors surrounding Taylor though have been mum, though his “injury” from him pitching in a blowout against the Guardians may be a reason for that silence. Once Taylor is back in the starting lineup and in the outfield, it’s likely that the trade chatter on Taylor will pick up again, though who knows if he will build enough momentum for a decent return by August 2nd.
Of course, there will be some addition by subtraction once Taylor and Whit are traded away.
Their exit will open the door for not only Eaton and Massey, but others like Brewer Hicklen and maybe Maikel Garcia, though I think Garcia will need some time in Triple-A first before we see him get a serious call-up (thus, 2023 is his most likely “true” debut).
However, Royals fans just need to realize that the Royals won’t receive a prospect package of note for either player by the Deadline.
The Royals Will DFA Ryan O’Hearn by the Trade Deadline
I think Royals fans were a bit surprised by O’Hearn’s “not” being on the restricted list (meaning he is currently vaccinated). O’Hearn is known for sharing some conservative views on Twitter, and he seems to be close with that group of Whit, Brady Singer, and Cam Gallagher, who are all unvaccinated. However, O’Hearn’s vaccination status was an opportunity for him for regular playing time, as he was pretty much the primary right fielder during the Toronto series.
And yet, despite the extended look, it still was not a great showing for O’Hearn, as he still is only slashing .179/.235/.256 over 85 plate appearances.
O’Hearn has found a niche as a pinch-hitter against right-handed relievers in the late innings this year, but I am not sure his “niche” warrants him keeping a spot on the Royals’ active roster, especially with players like Massey and Eaton needing to be added to the 40-man (they didn’t have to be due to the restricted list rules). Nick Pratto also had a decent outing as well, as he hit his first Major-League home run, and showcased “Gold Glove-Caliber” defense in the four-game slate against the Blue Jays.
Those facts alone should spell the end of the “O’Hearn-era” in Kansas City.
While he still does have a Minor League option remaining, and there will be some natural 40-man roster turnover with the trades of certain players (i.e. Whit, Taylor, Benny), I think Picollo and the Royals will bite the bullet and just DFA O’Hearn, with the hope that he can go unclaimed on waivers.
The Royals haven’t been as lucky this year when it comes to seeing players return after being DFA’d, as relievers Albert Abreu and Matt Peacock were both claimed on waivers shortly after being designated for assignment. However, I am not sure there is a tremendous market for a left-handed “power” hitter who mostly hits groundballs, so I imagine O’Hearn will finish the 2022 season in Omaha.
Kris Bubic Will Emerge As the Royals’ Best Young Starter
When compared to other Royals starting pitchers, Bubic’s numbers this year are “unimpressive” and that’s putting it lightly. Over 14 starts (and 15 outings overall), Bubic is posting a 5.87 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 1.50. His K/BB mark is not only down 0.43 points from a year ago, but the second-worst mark of any Royals starting pitcher with 10 or more IP this year, according to Fangraphs (only Carlos Hernandez is worse).
And yet, there are two things working in Bubic’s favor: his strong month of July, and his history of pitching much better in the second half of the season.
So far in July, Bubic is posting a 3.18 ERA over four starts and 22.2 IP. His 1.64 K/BB ratio in July isn’t as great as in June (1.94), but he has minimized line drive batted balls this month (20 percent) in comparison to June (25.3 percent) while increasing his GB/FB ratio for a second straight month (1.36 in June; 1.43 in July). His HR/FB rate has also remained stable the past two months (8.0 percent in June; 8.7 percent in July) after getting pretty wild in April (21.4 percent) and May (66.7 percent).
The fact of that matter is this: Bubic’s command is getting better, and it’s not a surprise that Bubic is coming off his best outing of the year against Toronto where he went seven innings and allowed only five hits and no earned runs while striking out four and walking two. He has been putting in the work, and now it is finally starting to click for the Stanford lefty.
Additionally, Bubic has traditionally performed well in the second half of the year over his Major League career.
Last season, he posted a 3.68 ERA in the second half, a major improvement from the 5.40 ERA he showed prior to the All-Star break. His K/BB ratio was also 2.28 in the second half in comparison to a 1.60 mark in the first half.
When one dives into most of Bubic’s 2021 splits and compares them to 2022, there are a lot of similarities between Bubic’s first halves from both seasons. Thus, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to believe that the Toronto start was a jumping point for Bubic to finish the 2022 season strong, and hopefully solidify his place in the Royals rotation for 2023.
I also feel a lot more comfortable about Bubic going forward than any of the young Royals pitchers in the second half, including Daniel Lynch, Brady Singer, Jon Heasley, Carlos Hernandez, and even Angel Zerpa, who had a pretty solid outing of his own north of the border.
First off, I am not sure if Hernandez or Zerpa are going to get a whole lot of outings in the second half to make a major impact (even though I feel more confident about Zerpa going into 2023 than Hernandez at this point). As for Lynch and Heasley, injury issues will probably hold them back in the second half, which is a bit of a damper considering that they were the strongest starting pitchers of the bunch over the first few months of the year.
Hence, it comes down to Singer or Bubic, and while Bubic has been progressing and actively working on finding the right pitch mix, Singer has been doing a bit of the opposite. Here’s a look at Brady Singer’s changeup usage by month, according to Baseball Savant:
It’s really easy to sleep on Bubic right now, especially with his overall ERA near six.
And yet, there is a lot to like about what Bubic has shown over the past month, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Royals fans feeling quite optimistic about Bubic’s outlook long-term in the Kansas City rotation at the conclusion of the 2022 season.
Bobby Witt, Jr. Will Win the AL Rookie of the Year
It’s been an interesting rookie campaign for Royals “wunderkind” Bobby Witt, Jr.
After posting a 54 wRC+ in April, he’s posted wRC+ marks of 128, 120, and 117 in May, June, and July, respectively, according to Fangraphs splits. He’s also hit 13 home runs over the past three months after hitting zero in April, which included this recent blast in Toronto off of Blue Jays ace Kevin Gausman:
When it comes to the AL Rookie of the Year race, there is no question that Julio Rodriguez of the Mariners is the clear favorite for the award going into the second half. Here’s a look at how they stack against one another, according to Fangraphs.
As one can see, Rodriguez pretty much beats out Witt in nearly every offensive category in the first half. That being said, I think there are a couple of things going for Witt that will work to his advantage in the second half.
First off, while Rodriguez’s numbers are pretty impressive, he does benefit from a pretty high BABIP, which is 45 points higher than Witt’s. But, a concern for Rodriguez is his 26.8 percent K rate, which is 3.7 percent higher than Witt. It wouldn’t be surprising to see that if Rodriguez hits a cold streak, he could see a sharp decline, which in turn, could give some ground to Witt in the AL Rookie of the Year race.
Also, don’t forget that Rodriguez is coming off a sensational performance in the HR Derby this week in Los Angeles at Dodgers Stadium.
But as baseball fans have seen countless times before, many HR Derby performers who broke out during the All-Star week have followed that with cold performances, especially right out of the gate. It would not be surprising to see Rodriguez struggle a little after being so trusted in the limelight, especially while leading a Mariners club that has surged back into the AL Wild Card race.
Rodriguez will still have a solid year, and it will be the Mariners, not the Royals, who have that shot to make the postseason.
But, when it’s all said and done, it will be Witt, Jr. who will be sporting the hardware for AL Rookie of the Year, even if the Las Vegas odds may be against him for now.
Get your bets in now, Royals fans.
Witt, Jr. is ready to go on a run and turn national baseball heads in Kansas City’s direction in the next couple of months.
Photo Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images