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Standing Pat – For Now

Flip the calendar, head west, and the Royals turn in to some kind of offensive juggernaut.

No hyperbole. Check the margins of victory since June 1:

6/2 vs Cleveland – 4
6/3 vs Cleveland – 7
6/6 vs Houston – 2
6/7 vs Houston – 2
6/10 vs San Diego – 6
6/11 vs San Diego – 5
6/13 vs San Francisco – 7

That’s kind of how you draw it up in advance, isn’t it? Close games against the good teams, blowouts against the bottom feeders, with a random big win against a team that’s supposed to contend. Mix it all together and you have a Royals team with a 7-4 record in the month, with a +13 run differential and a .636 winning percentage. Sure, they had a winning record in May (15-14) but that month had a -16 run differential. Better than April, for sure, but not generally how a winning team approaches their craft.

It doesn’t matter that the Royals have scraped together three wins in a row against lesser opposition. (Their longest winning streak of the season is four, accomplished twice.) Wins anytime matter. It feels extra significant at this moment in the season where you have every team in the American League within 6.5 games of the Wild Card.

Still, there’s plenty of discussion on whether the Royals should sell at the deadline. The instal-reaction, hot take says, yes. They should absolutely sell at the deadline if the market is right. The caveat to that is, any kind of trade talk or speculation at this point in the season is premature.

Should the Royals sell now? Hell no. And believe it or not, it has nothing to do with their current standing. The counter to a selloff at this very moment is that there would be greater value in return. A team like the Washington Nationals could use a reliever right now. Like, today. So flip them Kelvin Herrera and get something a little extra for the additional month of service he’d give to the Nats. Except it doesn’t necessarily work that way. Baseball is geared to ratchet up the price for an extra year of control, but it’s difficult to gauge the value on an extra month.

Besides, and this is the most important reason for standing pat in June, the market has yet to evolve to the point where teams are ready to jump into the trade waters. There’s a lot of temperature taking at the moment, but nothing concrete is being pulled together and offered at this time. This isn’t just about the Royals. No team is looking to make a trade at this very moment.

The situation in the American League only underscores the reasons behind the inertia. With every team a modest five game winning streak away from either taking control or jumping back in to the race, no one is going to be pushing a deal. You can argue the White Sox and the A’s (the two bottom teams in the league) would, and we know the Sox have actual trade chips. Again, the standings say those two teams are alone at the moment, which doesn’t create quite the market they would be looking for if they are going to sell.

What all this means is the Royals aren’t doing any damage to the franchise by taking stock over the next 30 to 40 days, figuring out where they stand among their AL peers. They’re not missing out on anything by waiting. It’s the smart play. It’s the correct play. See how the next month of games shakes out before making a decision. We may think we know the correct course of action, but in this environment, it’s important to make absolutely sure. There’s plenty of time. The Royals will use it.

One area where the Royals cannot afford to wait is on the starting rotation. It’s a bit of a crisis at this point. Danny Duffy and Nate Karns are sidelined. Jason Hammel and Ian Kennedy have been underwhelming. Jake Junis filled in admirably in San Diego on Sunday, giving the team innings when they were desperately needed. At this point however, the only arm the Royals can rely upon is Jason Vargas, who spun another beauty on Tuesday night in San Francisco.

The uncertainty in the rotation has led the Royals to pluck Matt Strahm from the bullpen to give him a start on Wednesday. The team, as they are prone to doing, will draw a best case analogy and point to Danny Duffy’s jump from starter to reliever and back to starter. (They could also point to Zack Greinke, but that’s ancient history.) Strahm is a guy who has had success in the minors as a starter, but the Royals chose to build their 2017 rotation via trade and free agency, pushing Strahm to the pen where he was supposed to form the next generation of dominant relief corps with Joakim Soria and Kelvin Herrera. It hasn’t worked that way, and with the emergence of other bullpen arms like Mike Minor and Scott Alexander, the Royals feel like they can remove Strahm from the relief mix and transition him to the rotation.

Strahm certainly has the stuff to start. As a reliever, he goes mostly fastball-slider. That’s all you need when you’re throwing gas out of the bullpen. As a starter, he’ll need to mix in his curve and change-up with more frequency. It’s the change that will be the key pitch if he’s to get deep into games.

His pitch mix won’t matter if he can’t get his command together. For the year, Strahm owns a 7.4 BB/9. Some of that damage was done in his first handful of appearances where he walked seven in 1.1 innings of work, earning a demotion to Triple-A to work on said command. But he hasn’t exactly been living in the strike zone since his return. Strahm has a 5.2 BB/9 since April 21. Since the start of May, that elevates to a 6.5 BB/9. There’s a lot of arbitrary end points there, but we’re dealing with the small sample of relievers. Everything is an arbitrary end point.

The main thing is, the command issues haven’t exactly been mitigated. They still appear from time to time. He can be brilliant in one outing, like when he sliced through the Astros lineup on June 5, needing just 18 pitches to record five outs, three via the strikeout. Then, he can struggle like we saw in his next outing where he needed 49 pitches to get through two innings against the Padres last Friday, walking three against three strikeouts. The damage was minimal in that appearance, but the struggle with command was certainly there.

All this is to say Strahm to the rotation isn’t exactly a desperate measure for a team looking for help. It’s a move we all thought made sense at some point in his career. Given the appearances we’ve seen from him to this point, he’s a bit of a wild card. The Royals say they’ll stretch him out and give him a strong look, which is a good thing. But until he builds up the pitch count, given the loss of command at times, they better make sure they have a rested bullpen lined up behind him. Thanks to Junis and Vargas sandwiched around a day off, Wednesday is a perfect time to try.

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