Happy Opening Day!
Baseball is back and it's a cause for celebration. It's time for some fearless predictions. Also, Whit Merrifield reworks his contract.
After a long, dreary winter followed by an accelerated spring, we’ve finally reached baseball nirvana. Opening Day. Let the games begin.
For me, the 2022 season opens on an optimistic note. While I don’t expect the Royals to contend for the divisional crown or even on of the myriad wild cards, I do expect them to be competitive and, more importantly, to be exciting and fun to watch. Honestly, my excitement level is practically off the charts. The season holds so much promise because we’re going to see that full influx of youth across the board. Maybe not as much as I would like at the start, but it’s coming…Soon.
Is it weird with so much youth on the team that I’m insanely excited to watch Zack Greinke pitch? That I want to watch Whit Merrifield steal third base as often as possible? That I can’t wait to watch the relievers burn up the stadium radar gun?
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Baseball is back!
Let’s lead off today with a few fearless predictions about the 2022 Royals.
Adalberto Mondesi will finish with an OPS+ above 100
That sounds so…easy. Except Mondesi has posted an OPS+ above 100 exactly one time in his career—in 2018 when he finished at 115. In 2019 (the only season of his career where he appeared in more than 100 games) his OPS+ was 85. He followed that up with back-to-back 90s.
Honestly, this is a make-or-break year for Mondesi. The Royals have moved him back to shortstop and will basically turn him loose for as long as he’s healthy. He has all the potential in the world and when he’s on, there is hardly a ballplayer more electric. Except the problem is those pesky extended stretches where he’s not on.
If the Royals are to improve offensively, they will need him to step up and finally realize that potential over the course of an entire season.
Daniel Lynch will be this year’s breakout starter
Let’s start with his Triple-A numbers from 57 innings last year. Lynch posted a 9.8 SO/9 and a 2.8 BB/9. He’s the type of pitcher who will probably have a higher than what we would consider normal BABIP, but even at Omaha, a .390 BABIP was absurdly elevated. Same for a 69 percent strand rate.
When Lynch was promoted to Kansas City, he lost about two whiffs per nine, added about a walk and a half per nine and saw his strand rate fall even lower. (The BABIP did drop to .335.) The case I’m trying to make is if he can locate better and with consistency—and he can definitely do that—he can improve at the major league level. Plus, his first seven appearances when he returned from his second turn in Omaha were quite strong.
I hope the Royals award him with the fifth starter role to begin the year. There’s reason for optimism here.
Bobby Witt Jr. will win the American League Rookie of the Year award
Please file this under “No duh.”
The Royals will win 78 games
It’s an improvement over last season’s 74 wins, but the rotation is enough of a question mark for me that I can’t will them back to that elusive .500 mark. Although I do feel by guesstimating them at 78 wins, they are within the margin of error. If everything breaks their way, I can see a .500 finish.
It’s going to be a fun season.
On Wednesday night the Royals announced they restructured Whit Merrifield’s contract. There’s a bit to unpack (and I do love to dive into the business side of things), so let’s dive in. First, Merrifield signed a contract extension with the club in January of 2019. The deal was set up like this.
2019 - $1 million
2020 - $5 million
2021 - $6.75 million
2022 - $2.75 million
2023 - $6.5 million option with a $750,000 buyout
The new deal looks like this
2022 - $7 million
2023 - $6.75 million
2024 - $18 million mutual option with $500,000 buyout
(For Merrifield to collect the entire amount in 2023, he has to stay off the IL for fewer than 110 days. Given his track record of durability, I’m thinking that’s not an issue.)
The 2020 through 2022 seasons were when Merrifield would’ve been eligible for arbitration. The lower amount for the 2022 season was thought to be because of what was then an impending labor situation. Basically, Merrifield was taking a bit more money upfront to protect himself against a potential loss of salary due to lockout or player strike.
Now that we have a full slate of games ahead of us, the Royals decided to do a little make-good and bring Merrifield’s contract up to around what he would’ve been earning as a third-year arbitration-eligible player. Actually, it’s still probably a little low. But again, he got a few more dollars in that first year (2020) he would’ve been eligible for arbitration.
Basically, the money for 2023 doesn’t really change. The Royals picked up the option and added $250,000 to it. They shaved that off the buyout on the new 2024 option. Just moving some dollars around.
Speaking of which, the mutual option for 2024 isn’t going to happen. Under any circumstances. But how can you not love a good Royals mutual option?
Basically, the Royals just gave Merrifield an extra $4.25 million for this upcoming season while picking up his option for 2023. There is some escalator language in the contract around health and MVP votes and other awards, but that’s stuff to sort out later.
The question is, can Merrifield provide the value that the Royals trust him to do? I’ve mentioned this recently, but here is how Merrifield has performed offensively since signing his extension.
That’s declining production pretty much across the board, although I’m willing to overlook the Covid year of 2020. Merrifield has lost 50 points of on base percentage over the last three seasons while his slugging percentage has dipped over 65 points in the last two. Entering his age 33 season, it’s not difficult to look at these numbers and conclude Merrifield is in the midst of the decline phase of his career.
While that is the case at the plate, Merrifield still provides plenty of value on the bases and in the field.
2018 - 5.1 fWAR
2019 - 2.9 fWAR
2020 - 1.3 fWAR
2021 - 3.2 fWAR
If a win is valued at around $8 million, the Royals have still secured a bargain. While we can debate Merrifield’s suitability to leadoff for this Royals club due to his declining ability to get on base, he can still do damage in other ways, and those ways help the team. Steamer projects Merrifield to be worth 2.1 fWAR while ZiPS is a lot more optimistic coming in at 3.4 fWAR. If he lands anywhere in that range, this contract is still very club-friendly.
Basically, the Royals continue to do right by their players. A bump of just over $4 million is loose change to a team worth over a billion dollars. Merrifield may not be the player he once was, but he’s still an asset.
Final rosters are due this morning and given the way the Royals do business, expect them to wait until the deadline to reveal the full Opening Day team.
The first bit of business was touched on in this space last last week regarding adding Bobby Witt Jr to the 40-man roster. They can make that happen by moving Jonathan Bowlan, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, to the 60-day IL.
The bench situation was settled once the Royals optioned Emmanuel Rivera on Wednesday. He was the odd man out on a bench that includes Cam Gallagher as the backup catcher along with Ryan O’Hearn, Edward Olivares and Kyle Isbel.
That leaves the pitching front, where the Royals need to decide between Daniel Lynch and Brady Singer as to who will be their fifth starter. I was leaning Singer based on experience and the possibility of facing a right-handed heavy Cardinal lineup in the season’s fifth game, but it’s difficult to ignore the drumbeat that is growing for Lynch. If Singer is out of the rotation at the start of the season, does he go to Omaha to get into a routine and maintain a starter’s workload, or does he stay in Kansas City and slot into the bullpen?
Speaking of the bullpen, Jackson Kowar is already there as the long man along with Gabe Speier and Collin Snyder. Joel Payamps isn’t officially on the team (unless I missed something), but is out of options. If Singer stays in Kansas City, could Dylan Coleman draw the short straw in this game of musical bullpen chairs? Personally, I’d hate to see it because I’m a believer in Coleman and love the smoke. However, it’s a long season ahead and there will be plenty of opportunity for all the pitchers on the 40-man.
This edition is getting rather long, but what the heck…It’s Opening Day. Still, I need to drop my fearless (and wrong) divisional standing predictions.
The Wild Card teams are the Yankees, Rays and Mariners.
The Wild Card teams are the Braves, Phillies and Padres.
My World Series call is Dodgers over the Blue Jays.
Your turn to make some fearless predictions of your own. If you dare.
Finally…It’s time…Play ball!