Stuck in the American League Central Division cellar, the KC Royals haven’t given their fans much to be excited about. Sure, the team started strongly by keeping top prospect Bobby Witt Jr. with the club instead of optioning him after spring training. In retrospect, though, that decision was a sign of things to come.
The Royals moved Witt to third base and kept oft-injured and streaky veteran Adalberto Mondesi at shortstop. They only played Kyle Isbel in four games during April. Edward Olivares, after being one of the team’s hottest hitters in spring training didn’t become a full-time player until the season’s second week. Then it took injuries to both Cam Gallagher and Salvador Perez to open the big league door for MJ Melendez.
The team has kept such struggling veterans as Ryan O’Hearn and Carlos Santana on the major league roster while Vinnie Pasquantino has been one of the hottest hitters in the minor leagues.
The front office’s unwillingness to embrace youth and the team’s lack of wins has left fans in the dust. The only thing to look forward to now might be the trade deadline, for which the Royals should have two clear goals: clear the way for young hitters and acquire more established pitching.
The KC Royals’ top focus must be on clearing space for hitting prospects.
If Kansas City wants to succeed at the trade deadline, it’s time for tough decisions to finally be made.
The team must part with Santana. O’Hearn must be designated for assignment or traded to a team that can get more value from him like the Rockies:
Those are easy moves the Royals haven’t made and would open the door for Pasquantino. The harder move will be making space for Nick Pratto. To do so, the team must consider trading Whit Merrifield, Nicky Lopez, or Hunter Dozier—Pratto has played 129 of his 341 innings this season in right or left field, so he could step into the outfield roles either Merrifield or Dozier have played. And although Pratto has Gold Glove potential at first base, that spot will likely go to Pasquantino.
Right now, right field is manned by the mix of Melendez, Dozier, and Merrifield, but Melendez will certainly settle in as the everyday catcher. Trading Dozier won’t be easy—the Royals signed him to a four-year, $25 million extension last year and, while on its face that deal isn’t hard to stomach, it’s heavily backloaded. The Royals have also been unwilling to trade Merrifield for the better part of four years; don’t expect that to change now.
So, that leaves Lopez. Trading him means Merrifield could move back to second full time and open more right field innings for Pratto.
By trading Lopez now, the Royals can still capitalize on some of his residual 2021 value and consider acquiring someone like pitcher Will Bednar from San Francisco, who was the 14th overall selection in the 2021 amateur draft. He has a four-pitch mix that includes a plus-fastball and plus-slider combination.
The time has come for the KC Royals to acquire more established pitching.
The theme of the current Kansas City rebuild has been pitching—the Royals drafted college arms with each of their first 2018 draft picks five picks and added to their pitching crop in 2019 by drafting Alec Marsh and Drew Parrish. Then came Asa Lacy, Christian Chamberlain and Will Klein in the 2020 draft.
Although several of those hurlers have made it to Kansas City, the team ranks last in the AL in ERA, WHIP, K/9, and FIP. The Royals could continue to wait for their young arms to develop and succeed, but that might mean they end up wasting their talented young hitters with poor pitching that won’t catch up until those hitters are becoming free agents.
Or, Kansas City could trade for some established pitching to supplement the young arms and allow them to develop further. An Andrew Benintendi trade could be the key—he’s eligible for free agency after this season and could bring a haul of players in return. The Brewers and Yankees both make sense in a trade because they need a left-handed bat and both have expendable pitchers.
Trading Benintendi for a proven starter like Eric Lauer (2.93 ERA in 30 starts since 2021) makes a lot of sense for the Royals because such a deal would also help open the door for Pratto, who could replace Benintendi in left. Lauer is a 27-year-old former first-round pick of the Padres (2016) who debuted with them in 2018 and struggled to a 4.40 ERA over his first 52 starts. Lauer was sent to the Brewers with Luis Urias in a 2019 postseason trade and has a 3.53 ERA since.
A trade with the Yankees for Luis Severino (3.38 career ERA in 98 starts) might also work. After some ups and downs, he became a full-time starter in 2017 and owns a 3.07 ERA in 76 starts since. Severino is only 28 and controllable with a team option for the 2023 season.
If the Royals want to get serious about ending their rebuild and jumping into contention, these are some ways to do it. The team needs to leverage Benintendi’s value to supplement its pitching and trade away some hitters to open the door for the next wave.
It’s time for the Royals to make some tough personnel decisions and moves.