The Royals are much closer to the worst team in baseball than a playoff spot. While Kansas City wasn’t expected to make the postseason, there’s no question the organization envisioned better results than they had in the first half.
There are a number of reasons for the club’s underperformance. The most concerning theme for the organization has been the down years and/or injury issues for most of their top young talent. Kansas City expected to be further along in the rebuild by now. Instead, a lot of the players they’ve envisioned as a developing core have plateaued or gone backwards.
That’s not unanimously true. Bobby Witt Jr. has stolen 27 bases, connected on 14 home runs and taken a huge step defensively. Even with a modest .300 on-base percentage, he looks like the franchise shortstop the Royals wanted when selecting him with the 2nd overall pick in 2019. Rookie Maikel Garcia has taken over third base with plus exit velocities and strong defense.
Aside from the left side of the infield, the Royals’ young players have mostly underwhelmed, however.
- MJ Melendez, RF/LF/C
Melendez, a 2nd-round selection in 2017, emerged as one of the sport’s top prospects with a 41-homer showing in the upper minors two years ago. The left-handed hitter connected on 18 longballs with a roughly average .217/.313/.393 line as a rookie in 2022. His power production has fallen off this year; he carries a meager .206/.289/.333 mark with six homers in 346 trips to the plate.
While Melendez walks a fair amount, he offsets that with big strikeout totals. He has gone down on strikes nearly 30% of the time this season. That puts a lot of pressure on him to hit for power, no small feat in one of the sport’s most pitcher-friendly home parks. Melendez has a huge 93 MPH average exit velocity and is making hard contact (95+ MPH) on over half his batted balls. There’s clearly power upside in there. He’s not in a great environment to maximize it and is striking out too frequently though.
Were Melendez catching every day, that offensive profile would be more acceptable. With Salvador Perez behind the dish, the Royals have deployed the youngster mostly in the corner outfield. Well below-average offense at a bat-first position means he’s playing at a worse than replacement level rate.
- Brady Singer, RHP
The Royals invested heavily in college pitching in the 2018 draft. Singer was the only member of the group who put together mid-rotation results, seemingly breaking out with a 3.23 ERA over 27 appearances last season. He’s gone in the opposite direction this year.
Over 18 starts, the Florida product is allowing 5.80 earned runs per nine across 94 2/3 innings. His strikeouts and grounders are both at career-worst levels. Singer’s strikeout rate has dropped over six percentage points to a modest 18.1% clip. His swinging strikes are down to a below-average 8.5% of his offerings.
Singer’s arsenal has backed up. His sinker is averaging 92.3 MPH, down a tick and a half from last year’s level. His career-long struggle to find a changeup is still showing up in his results against left-handed hitters. Southpaws have a .292/.373/.489 line in 250 trips to the plate this year.
- Daniel Lynch, LHP
Lynch, the 34th overall selection in the aforementioned college-heavy ’18 draft, has started 50 games in his MLB career. The 6’6″ southpaw has yet to find much success, posting a 5.10 ERA over parts of three seasons. His 4.18 mark through eight starts is a personal low, though he’s paired it with a few alarming underlying indicators.
Most notably, Lynch’s velocity has taken a step back. He’s averaging 92.7 MPH on his heater, down from the 94 MPH range in which he sat in 2021-22. A Spring Training rotator cuff strain could explain that dip, although Lynch’s velocity has fallen even as he’s gotten further removed from the season-opening injured list stint. He averaged a season-low 91.6 MPH on his four-seam during his final start headed into the All-Star Break.
With the drop in speed has come a corresponding hit to his strikeouts. The Virginia product has fanned under 16% of opposing hitters. It’s the lowest rate of his career, down nearly five points from last season. Lynch’s 11.7% swinging strike percentage is still solid, so he’s not losing whiffs on a per-pitch basis, but he’s had a tougher time finishing off at-bats.
Pasquantino’s disappointing year has been more about health than performance. His .247/.324/.437 line was down markedly from a huge .295/.383/.450 rookie showing, but even the diminished version of Pasquantino was one of Kansas City’s top hitters. Unfortunately, the 25-year-old tore the labrum in his right shoulder and underwent surgery last month. His season is finished after just 61 games.
- Nick Pratto, 1B
Pasquantino’s injury has opened regular playing time for the 24-year-old Pratto. Like Melendez, the lefty-hitting first baseman emerged as a top prospect based on huge power production in the upper minors. His profile also comes with significant swing-and-miss concerns, which have resurfaced at the MLB level.
Pratto is hitting .246/.331/.388 with six homers in a career-high 257 plate appearances. That’s better than the bulk of the Kansas City lineup, league average offense by measure of wRC+. Yet he’s needed a .395 average on balls in play to keep that production respectable. He’s striking out at a 37.7% clip, the highest rate among players with 250+ trips to the plate. If he’s to be a long-term regular, especially at a bat-first position, he’ll need to put the ball in play more frequently.
- Drew Waters, CF
By the time the Royals acquired Waters from the Braves almost exactly one year ago, the outfielder’s stock was well down from its peak level. The switch-hitter had been a borderline Top 50 prospect at one point in the Atlanta farm system, but mounting strikeout issues in the upper minors raised questions about his offense. The Royals were buying low to some extent, though they still relinquished the 35th overall pick in last year’s draft (which Atlanta subsequently used on high school righty JR Ritchie) for Waters.
Kansas City wouldn’t have given up a pick that high if they didn’t believe Waters still had a chance to be an everyday player. An offseason trade of Michael A. Taylor cleared a path to center field reps. Waters’ hopes of starting on Opening Day were dashed by a left oblique strain that cost him the first two months of the season.
Since returning, the 24-year-old has put up a .239/.293/.354 line over 37 games. He’s striking out an untenable 37.4% rate. Perhaps there’s some rust to be shaken off after the extended absence, but Waters’ early results aren’t offering much hope he’s on the verge of a breakthrough. Whether he’ll make enough contact to be a regular is still in question.
- Kyle Isbel, CF
With Waters opening the season on the shelf, the 26-year-old Isbel got the Opening Day nod in center field. He has just a .210/.258/.355 line in 37 contests. Isbel is making the most contact of his career but not hitting many line drives, and his overall production closely matches last year’s .211/.264/.340 slash. The former 3rd-round selection has been viewed by most evaluators as a fringe regular, although he still ranked among K.C.’s top ten prospects at Baseball America each season from 2019-22. He looks better suited for fourth/fifth outfield duty than a starting role.
- Michael Massey, 2B
Massey, 25, showed some promise with a .243/.307/.376 line as a rookie late last season. He got the Opening Day nod at second base this year but hasn’t seized the job. The left-handed hitter has a .220/.277/.320 mark with four homers over 220 plate appearances. Opposing pitchers have punched him out 28.2% of the time. Massey is hitting the ball reasonably hard but chasing too many pitches outside the strike zone to post a decent on-base mark.
Without much progress from most of their young players, the Royals haven’t had many silver linings. A 26-65 record would be an obvious disappointment regardless of how it was happening, but it’s made more so by the scarcity of controllable players asserting themselves as key pieces for the future. Aside from Witt and arguably Garcia, none of Kansas City’s early-mid 20s talent is staking a firm claim to an important role for next season.
The primary focus for the next few weeks will be which veteran players get moved at the deadline, with closer Scott Barlow standing out as their top trade chip. Once August 1 passes, the final couple months will be about evaluation. Can any of their currently scuffling controllable players turn things around to head into the offseason with positive momentum to build upon?