JASON BROWN: Royals need big boost from incoming prospects

Jason Brown
The Leavenworth Times
Bobby Witt Jr. is off to a great start this spring with the Royals.

I can’t be the only one who is growing slightly concerned as the Kansas City Royals continue to flirt with a .500 record as the Major League Baseball season approaches the All-Star break and trade deadline.

Nearly two weeks ago, the Royals piled 13 runs on the Minnesota Twins in the first two innings of what would be a 14-5 win that pushed the club to 29-26. They had claimed the first two games of a four-game series with the Twins – who were last in the AL Central – and were headed into a series with the Los Angeles Angels, another sub-.500 team which was missing superstar Mike Trout. 

Could you imagine a world where the Royals lost the following two games to the Twins, then were swept by the Angels while hardly putting up a fight?

Me either.

Both losses to the Twins were one-run heartbreakers where the Royals displayed an inability to get the big hit in the ninth inning. There was poor baserunning by Jarrod Dyson to end a 5-4 loss and a humiliating triple play turned on a bunt off the bat of Nicky Lopez that highlighted a 2-1 loss.

It was ugly. 

Those losses took every bit of wind out of the Royals’ sails because the series with the Angels was borderline unwatchable. Paired with the fact that all three contests didn’t begin until nearly 9 p.m., the Royals scored five runs across all three games and never stood a chance. 

Jorge Soler – who hit the most home runs in a season in Royals’ history less than two years ago – is having a disastrous season with a .176 batting average on nearly 200 at-bats. Hunter Dozier hasn’t been any better and his recently-signed four-year extension (worth $25 million) already looks like it will be tough for the club to justify. 

Royals left fielder Andrew Benintendi celebrates after hitting a grand slam against the Pittsburgh Pirates Tuesday. Benintendi's trade to Kansas City was completed when the Royals sent a pair of minor league pitchers to the Boston Red Sox as the players to be named later.

Thankfully, the offseason pick-ups of Carlos Santana and Andrew Benintendi are paying off as both have made solid contributions. 

Another difficult situation is the pitching staff, which has undergone a handful of shakeups early on. Brad Keller had an awful start to the season, making it hard to label him as the staff’s ace. Jakob Junis was thought of as a top-3 starter on this staff but was moved to the bullpen before being optioned to AAA Omaha to build up his pitch count for a return to the rotation. Danny Duffy was the lone bright spot of the starters but it became clear after a month he was throwing much harder than year’s past and suffered an injury. 

The big story of the club’s farm system is the quartet of pitchers that were drafted in 2018 but it has been a rocky road with all four having made their major league debuts to very mixed results.

Royals starting pitcher Kris Bubic throws during the first inning.

Bubic came up at the beginning of May and worked out of the bullpen before hopping into the rotation. He had success in long relief and has been a decent starter with a 3.32 ERA and 32 strikeouts. Lynch was a nightmare in three starts where he threw a total of eight innings and allowed 14 earned runs. It was clear in his last start that he was struggling with tipping his pitches, which led to him being sent back down to Omaha. Brady Singer has been solid at times but it is obvious that his temper affects his performance. His ERA is a bit too high at 4.88 but he has struck out 62 batters while issuing just 23 walks. He’s definitely had his sour moments this season but he has plenty of potential to grow in this rotation. Jackson Kowar is the biggest unknown as he made his debut against the Angels and only got two outs before being removed due to extreme lack of command. The nerves were obviously there for the rookie and there’s no reason to think a prospect who was 5-0 with an ERA under one in Omaha will put some solid outings together over the next few weeks. 

That brings me to the most important piece of this puzzle. Bobby Witt Jr., the second overall draft pick in 2019, needs to make his major-league debut this season. He absolutely needs to if the Royals want to catch lightning in a bottle and push for the playoffs this season. He’s mashing in AA Northwest Arkansas and has demonstrated solid fielding ability so it should only be a matter of time before he is taking the field at Kauffman Stadium. 

If Witt comes up in the coming months, it will give the Royals the chance to be more flexible with their lineup, especially if Adalberto Mondesi is unable to return in a regular capacity. 

Whit Merrifield hasn’t played the best defense at second base and Jorge Soler should almost always be the designated hitter – despite his dismal numbers at the plate – instead of right field. Bringing Witt up and moving Merrifield to right field is a big boost to the lineup and the defense. 

The Royals didn’t want to be in this situation when the season opened and if General Manager Dayton Moore had his way, Witt probably wouldn’t see the big leagues until 2022. They can’t continue to have impressive stretches, only to see all of their progress erased by a destructive streak of losing. 

Jason Brown is the sports editor of the Leavenworth Times. Contact him at jbrown@leavenworthtimes.com