After a Series Win Over the Rays, the Royals Are Back in Fourth in the Central…But Will It Last?

After a solid outing from starting pitcher Kris Bubic, and another solid team performance at the plate that resulted in 14 hits, the Royals beat the Tampa Bay Rays 4-2 to clinch the first series win of the second half. The series win over the Rays was also a long-time coming, as Kansas City has struggled against Tampa Bay since the Royals began their rebuild in 2018.

The win on Sunday also brought the Royals’ overall record to 38-57, which gets them out of last place and puts them above the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central standings.

In fact, this is the first time that the Royals have been out of the AL Central basement since May 28th.

Thus, there’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to this Royals lineup, even if the excitement was hampered a bit on Sunday when Bobby Witt, Jr. was taken out of the game in the second inning due to a hamstring precaution. So far, the tests have been positive and no structural damage has been reported as of now. Still, it’s likely that the Royals will treat Witt with kid gloves, especially after losing Opening Day starters Salvador Perez and Adalberto Mondesi to long-term injuries this year.

No matter how long Witt is out, this much is certain: this Royals team is finally starting to look better. Not just on the offensive end, but also on the pitching end, especially after solid back-to-back performances from Brady Singer and Bubic on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

After slow starts at the beginning of the season (which saw both of them in and out of the rotation as well as in Triple-A Omaha for brief stints), Singer and Bubic have emerged as two of the stronger pitchers in the Royals rotation in the month of July, which has been much-needed with Daniel Lynch and Jon Heasley both on the IL.

Even though the Royals’ postseason chances are long, if not impossible at this point, they are certainly more worth watching now than back in May and June, when they were a hodgepodge group of struggling rookies and/or declining veterans.

With the August Trade Deadline approaching though, which means the likely departure of some key Royals starters, will the Royals be able to keep up this surging pace in August and September?

Or will the eventual moves from the Trade Deadline put the Royals back in the AL Central basement by the end of the 2022 season?

Can The Starting Rotation Come Together in the Second Half?

There’s no question that Singer and Bubic were more than stellar in their respective starts.

Even though Singer only went six innings, he struck out 12 batters, and only gave up three hits and two runs (only one earned) in the no-decision.

A big reason for the high number of swings and misses on Saturday night was due to the pinpoint sequencing of his sinker and slider against Tampa Bay hitters, especially left-handed ones. Below is an example of Singer utilizing that sinker-slider combo effectively against Rays’ first baseman Ji-Man Choi.

While Bubic wasn’t as prolific as Singer when it came to generating strikeouts, Bubic showed tremendous growth on the mound on Sunday.

Not only was it the second-straight start where Bubic went seven innings in an outing, but he also was able to effectively utilize his curveball, his third most-used pitch, against the Rays lineup. His curveball has been pretty much a non-factor over his career, as it produced a +9 run value a year ago, according to Savant. On the other hand, it is producing a -2 run value this year, and today was the best the breaking ball looked all year, both on a visual and analytical end.

Here’s a look at his CSW breakdown via Savant, and notice how his curveball generated the highest CSW rate at 30 percent in his most recent start.

For the Royals rotation to have any success for the remainder of the year, they will need that consistent production from Singer and Bubic over the next couple of months, as well as contributions from Zack Greinke and Brad Keller, who have been the veteran arms in the Royals rotation.

Keller is a possible trade candidate, but it’s likely that the Royals will hold onto him for the remainder of the season, especially with pitching such a volatile commodity in Kansas City. Keller is generating an fWAR of 0.9, which is the second-best mark of Royals starting pitchers this year, which is a positive sign considering how many innings he’s pitched this year (he leads the staff with 101.2 IP). Additionally, his 4.34 FIP is not all that different from his 4.16 ERA, which shows that the success Keller has experienced this year is not just “luck induced”, which has been an issue for him in the past.

As for Greinke, he has not been the “Cy Young” caliber pitcher that he once was when he was last in Kansas City, and that is evident in his 4.64 ERA. But, he’s actually been pretty good when he’s pitched at the K this year, as he is posting a 1.86 ERA in 38.2 IP at Kauffman in comparison to a 7.86 ERA in 39 IP on the road, according to Fangraphs splits data. When Greinke is on the mound in Kansas City at least, the Royals have a shot to stay close in the game.

In addition to those four, who knows what the rotation will look like when a healthy Lynch and/or Heasley return from their rehab stints in Omaha. Furthermore, Angel Zerpa could figure more prominently in the mix as well, especially after a solid emergency outing in Toronto before the All-Star break. While he doesn’t offer a ton of “swing and miss” stuff, he does limit walks, which is much needed for a pitching staff that has struggled in this category this year.

The Royals starting rotation hasn’t been good, and pitching coach Cal Eldred certainly hasn’t alleviated things either in his role as pitching coach.

But right now, there are some signs that the Royals rotation is getting better, and that definitely should be a reason for excitement among Royals fans for not just the remainder of 2022, but 2023 as well.

Can the Royals Handle the (Likely) Losses of Whit and Benny (and maybe Taylor) in the Lineup?

The starting rotation is looking promising so far in the second half, and the offense has continued to churn as well. However, will the Royals lineup continue to rake, even when Whit Merrifield, Andrew Benintendi, and Michael A. Taylor are likely traded away by the August 2nd Trade Deadline?

That is going to be an interesting question, though so far, the early returns are in the Royals’ favor.

There’s no question that the Royals are going to miss those three in the lineup for the remainder of the season. Benintendi was rightfully the Royals’ lone All-Star, and while Whit struggled out of the gate, he’s been much more like his usual self over the past couple of months at the plate. And while Taylor can be streaky offensively, he’s had a penchant lately for coming through in the big moment, as he did on Saturday night.

And yet, while the Royals will miss those three players’ contributions when they are gone, Kansas City still has plenty of reinforcements in the upper Minors and the young guys have already shown that they can bring a jolt to this lineup as well.

Nick Pratto has settled in as the Royals’ everyday first baseman after making his MLB debut in Toronto. Nate Eaton hit a crucial home run for his first Major League hit against the Blue Jays. And Michael Massey not only turned heads with his performance at the plate and on the field against Toronto, but he’s continued to mash since coming back down to Omaha, as Alex Duvall of Royals Farm Report noted.

There could be some regression for the Royals offensively once Whit, Benny, and Taylor are gone from Kansas City. That is to be expected whenever veteran hitters leave a big league roster around the MLB Trade Deadline.

But the drop-off won’t be as steep as some Royals fans may think, and that is another good sign going forward for this Royals squad.

Can the Royals Stay Ahead of the Tigers? (And Does It Matter?)

The Royals are only half a game ahead of the Tigers, so it’s not like there’s a huge gap between Kansas City and the basement. A bad series against the Angels and a tough series looming with the Yankees in the Bronx could easily put the Royals back in last place in the AL Central by next Sunday.

However, it does feel like this Royals team is surging in the right direction, while the Tigers are trending in the inverse.

The Tigers have failed to see much production from their two primary free agent acquisitions this year: shortstop Javier Baez and pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez. Both have combined to produce 1.2 fWAR this year, which is definitely not living up to the multi-million, multi-year deals they inked this offseason.

To make matters worse, the rest of the Tigers roster has been a mess, though injuries have been a key contributor to their disappointing performance in 2022.

Casey Mize and Matt Manning, two key young pitchers, aren’t going to pitch at all for the remainder of 2022. In addition, Michael Pineda and Beau Brieske, two arms who have been contributing decently this year, just recently landed on the IL again, a major blow to their already thin rotation.

On the offensive end, Baez is currently on the IL, and Austin Meadows, another key acquisition this offseason, has also been a frequent visitor to the IL, not what they hoped for when they traded Isaac Paredes and a draft pick for him this Winter. Add in the struggles of Jeimer Candelario and Akil Baddoo, who were expected to be key hitters in the lineup after promising 2021 campaigns, and it’s not surprising that the Tigers rank last in wRC+ this season.

The Royals do not need to be a tremendously better team to finish higher than the Tigers this season. This is a wounded and reeling Tigers team that may be looking to jettison some veterans in order to better identify who is worth keeping in the long-term and who isn’t. If the Royals just continue to play like they have the past couple of months and avoid major injury (crossing fingers for Witt), then the Royals should finish fourth again in the AL Central at least for a fourth-straight season.

Now, does another fourth-place finish matter? After all, they finished fourth in 2019, 2020, and 2021, and it seemed pretty hollow at the end of those respective seasons.

But this season is different.

Finishing fourth with a young group, a group built for the future, would be a rousing success for a Royals squad that looked absolutely lifeless at the beginning of June. The Royals need to build on little victories, especially with a young squad that is developing their identity on the field and voice in the clubhouse. If this club can rally after Whit, Benny, and Taylor leave and solidify themselves in fourth place in the AL Central by the season’s end, they can go into 2023 with a legitimate chance of taking the next step in the division standings.

Finishing fourth with a veteran squad isn’t worth much. On the other hand, finishing fourth with a young team that will be around for a good number of years beyond 2022?

Well, that’s legitimate hope that Royals fans can feed off of…

And that’s what this fanbase needs: legitimate hope (as well as seeing a couple of staff and development changes in the offseason as well).

Photo Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

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