After a rough recent road trip, the Kansas City Royals started their final homestand of 2022 with authority, as they swept the Minnesota Twins and pretty much ended their postseason hopes.
Granted, the Royals are 61-89 after Thursday’s 4-1 victory. It’s not like a strong finish will make this bitterly tough season any sweeter.
However, it’s nice to see that after a monumental front office change with Dayton Moore that the Royals are playing better baseball as of late. It gives hope to Kansas City that better days are ahead under the new head of baseball operations: JJ Picollo.
While the Royals season is clearly over in terms of a competitive end, some stories are still worth following over these last two weeks of the MLB season.
The stories that should be of the most interest, at least until the regular season ends, center on the position battles that are already brewing and could be hot topics when players report in Surprise in February and March of 2023. That is what makes the end of the season worth following, even for a losing club like the Royals. The battles for “2023 Opening Day roster” spots are already going on, and how this season finishes could influence how Picollo approaches this offseason.
Therefore, let’s take a look at three position battles going on right now with the Royals and what it could mean for not only this offseason but next Spring as well.
Centerfield: Drew Waters and Michael A. Taylor
The August 22nd call-up of Drew Waters, who may have been the biggest prospect acquired at the August Trade Deadline, was a bit of a surprise at the time among most Royals fans. While Waters was tearing it up in Triple-A Omaha, many fans felt that it would be better for Waters to continue to build confidence in Triple-A, while also continuing to work with Drew Saylor and Royals Minor League hitting development staff.
Waters is up in Kansas City though, and he certainly has made the most of his opportunity. That is further evidenced by his second career MLB home run, which occurred in Thursday’s afternoon contest against the Twins.
The presence of Waters in Kansas City has brought up a valuable question among Royals fans: Does he make Michael A. Taylor expendable this offseason.
The Royals elected to keep Taylor at the Trade Deadline, which felt weird at the time, especially since Taylor is 31-years-old, and was having one of the best seasons of his career thus far. With only one year remaining on his deal after 2022, it would have made sense to trade Taylor for a prospect package fo some sort, especially considering his defensive value.
Instead, Taylor remained in Kansas City and promptly plummeted at the plate shortly after the Trade Deadline passed.
Let’s take a look at Taylor’s advanced splits over the course of the 2022 season, which can be seen in the table below (pay attention, particularly to August and September).
In the month of August, Taylor posted a .273 wOBA and 73 wRC+. Furthermore, in the month of September, his numbers have been even worse, as he is posting a .273 wOBA and 47 wRC+ as well. After posting a surprisingly solid .321 wOBA and 107 wRC+ in the first half of the year (which made him a hot trade commodity at the deadline), Taylor has tanked in the second half, which is evidenced by his .281 wOBA and 78 wRC+ after the All-Star break.
Which is a shame for Taylor, especially considering that he continues to be one of the top defensive outfielders in baseball, especially on a DRS end.
Taylor is certainly not a long-term piece for the Royals, but he does bring something positive to this organization. The former Washington National is posting a 1.6 fWAR this year, which is certainly valuable. In fact, Taylor’s fWAR is the third-best mark of Royals players with 200 or more plate appearances, according to Fangraphs.
That being said, Waters does provide an interesting profile on both an offensive and defensive end, and that has carried over from Omaha to Kansas City, even if it is still a work in progress.
While Waters’ fWAR leaves a bit to be desired, he has not only produced a better walk rate than Taylor this year but also slightly more power, which can be seen in the Fangraphs data in the table below.
As of Thursday, Waters’ ISO was 28 points higher and his walk rate was nearly four percent higher than Taylor’s too. And that was not including Thursday’s contest, which included a 1-for-3 performance with a home run against the Twins. Granted, xWOBA suggests that Taylor is producing better quality contact than Waters (.234 xwOBA). Then again though, Waters is nearly eight years younger than Taylor as well.
On one end, Taylor is not a bad weapon to have in Kansas City in 2023.
He is streaky at the plate and that can be infuriating at times for Royals fans.
But when he is hot, he can be one of the Royals’ most productive hitters, and can also provide an elite glove in centerfield to boot. And yet, with only one more year remaining on his deal, it may be better off to trade Taylor to a contender where he may have more of an impact, even if may result in less playing time than what he was seeing in Kansas City in 2021 and 2022.
Waters still has some work to do defensively in center field, as he is producing a -2 OAA, according to Baseball Savant. That is a small sample though, and with a full offseason and Spring camp with the Royals development team, it is possible that Waters could fully tap into his defensive tools and potential in 2023, which both rated quite highly when he was in the Braves organization.
If Waters finishes strong this season and makes progress this Spring, it could push Picollo to trade Taylor sooner rather than later (even if should have happened at the August Trade Deadline initially).
Third Base: Nate Eaton and Hunter Dozier
It’s been nice to see Eaton again in Kansas City. He’s pretty much a younger, hungrier Whit Merrifield.
While he doesn’t hit for much power (one home run thus far), he is hitting .268 with a .723 OPS and he has 10 stolen bases on 10 attempts at the Major League level this season. This also includes him stealing bases in five consecutive games.
Eaton didn’t steal a bag today (thus ending his streak) but there is no debate that Eaton is one of the Royals’ better baserunners, along with Bobby Witt, Jr. and Nicky Lopez.
While Eaton’s base-stealing ability has been quite noted, it’s been his move to third base lately that’s drawn some attention.
Prior to this recent stretch, Eaton was primarily used by Matheny in the outfield in a utility role. Even in Omaha, he mostly played in the outfield as well, rotating between all three outfield positions, depending on the need for that particular game.
Surprisingly though, in Northwest Arkansas and in Quad Cities, Eaton was primarily a third baseman, and manager Mike Matheny has given him an extended chance at the spot over the last week.
A big reason for that opportunity for Eaton at the hot corner has been the offensive struggles of Hunter Dozier in the second half of the 2022 season.
Let’s take a look at Dozier’s advanced monthly splits to see how rough it has been for Dozier after the All-Star break.
As Royals fans can see in the table above, the second half has been an absolute nightmare for Dozier.
Prior to the All-Star Break, Dozier was in the midst of a rebound season, which was much needed after subpar 2020 and 2021 campaigns. In the second half though, Dozier is producing a wOBA that is 124 points lower than his first-half mark, and a wRC+ that is 88 points lower than his first-half mark.
That is simply unacceptable, plain and simple, especially for a 31-year-old player who signed a multi-year extension prior to the 2021 season.
Despite having 383 fewer plate appearances than Dozier this year, Eaton is producing nearly two more wins on an fWAR basis. While that shows how surprisingly effective Eaton has been in limited actions since being called up from Omaha, it also gives a glimpse of how bad Dozier has been on an offensive AND defensive end this season, which can be further seen in the metrics below:
Dozier certainly has more power upside than Eaton, and his .145 ISO is 30 points higher than Eaton’s mark in that category. That being said, Eaton gives the Royals speed, position versatility, and a dependable bat at the hot corner in 2023 and beyond.
Maybe Eaton doesn’t fit the typical corner infielder type, but he certainly fits well defensively in the infield with Witt, Michael Massey, and Nick Pratto long-term. In fact, that infield could be one of the best defensive infields in the game as soon as 2023.
Unfortunately, Dozier only holds that group back next year, and not just on the defensive end but offensive one as well. If Dozier was mashing? Well, Royals fans could overlook his defensive inefficiencies. It wouldn’t be the first time (i.e. Jorge Soler in 2019).
But to make that concession for a third baseman with an 87 wRC+?
That’s a bit harder to stomach.
Setup Man: Brad Keller and Josh Staumont
Due to the Royals’ lack of bullpen options today, Matheny went with Brad Keller in the ninth inning to close out the Minnesota Twins. Thankfully, the decision proved to be a wise one, as he not only earned his first MLB save, but also struck out two batters in an inning of work as well.
After a rough start after the All-Star break, the Royals moved Keller to the bullpen in an effort to rejuvenate him on the mound, as well as manage his innings (he has never finished a season as a member of the Royals).
And so far for Keller, the transition has been a bit of a mixed bag.
The surface-level numbers aren’t good for Keller when it comes to his starter-reliever splits. As a starter, Keller is producing an ERA of 4.93. That isn’t good, but it’s a whole lot better than the 6.92 ERA he is producing as a reliever in 13 innings of work (and that isn’t including today).
However, the advanced numbers produce a more intriguing profile.
Yes, Keller’s BB/9 and WHIP numbers are higher as a reliever. However, he is producing a slightly better K-BB%, and his reliever FIP is 49 points lower than his FIP as a starter. That is mostly due to the .395 BABIP and 61 percent strand rate. Therefore, Royals fans have to wonder what Keller’s relief numbers would look like if he wasn’t hit by such rotten BABIP and strand rate (LOB%) luck.
Well, his player breakdown data from today’s outing (via Savant) does give fans a picture of what could be possible when Keller is humming out of the bullpen.
Keller’s numbers today, especially on a Called-Strike Plus Whiff (CSW) rate end are absolutely eye-popping. In fact, his overall 47 percent CSW rate was not only the highest rate of Royals pitchers today but Twins pitchers as well. Jovani Moran was close, but Keller was still five percent better than him on a CSW rate end.
And that makes a possible setup spot in the bullpen quite intriguing for Keller, especially if Josh Staumont is not healthy or effective in 2023.
This year has been absolutely brutal for Staumont, who produced an fWAR of 1.0 and ERA of 2.88 in 65.2 IP in 2021. While he has been hampered by injury, Staumont hasn’t been very effective when on the mound, as he is producing an fWAR of 0.1 and ERA of 6.45 over 37.2 IP this season.
After producing a sub-two FIP in the month of April, Staumont has seen his overall advanced metrics absolutely balloon after the All-Star break, much to the chagrin of Royals and Royals fans alike.
It’s hard to see many positives with a reliever who is not only producing a 6.58 FIP but a 1.00 K/BB ratio and 1.69 HR/9 in the second half of the year. For a bullpen that already struggles with walk issues, Staumont, unfortunately, doesn’t offer anything to the table.
Can Staumont return this Spring healthy and tap into that 2021 self again in 2023?
Perhaps, but Staumont will be 29 in December, and one has to wonder if the injuries he’s suffered this year will have long-term effects. While Keller doesn’t have Staumont’s experience out of the bullpen, Keller certainly has the stuff, and he’s been better recently, which can’t be said for Staumont in the second half.
The Royals need someone who can complement Scott Barlow in the 7th and 8th innings in 2023.
And right now, it looks like Keller, not Staumont, would be a better candidate for that role.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel