ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.
The philosophy of “chasing every win” that Royals manager Mike Matheny has espoused since his first day on the job in Kansas City hasn’t changed.
With an increased number of young players on the roster — they had 15 with three or fewer years in the majors on Sunday — questions have repeatedly been raised about whether the manager is emphasizing development over winning.
Each time, Matheny has steadfastly asserted that winning trumps development. Winning is the priority. And that’s not a Matheny philosophy, it’s the approach of the Royals’ front office all the way to the top: president of baseball operations Dayton Moore.
In short, club officials say winning — and learning how to win in the majors — is a vital piece of individual and team development.
Of course, the Royals will also use the final weeks of this season to evaluate their young players, as general manager J.J. Picollo made clear during an interview with The Star.
But that balancing act will likely get sticky in the season’s final weeks.
On Sunday, former first-round pick and current top prospect Nick Pratto, a left-handed hitter, started against a left-handed pitcher for the Rays, in Ryan Yarbrough — as did left-handed-hitting Royals outfielder Kyle Isbel.
But in the sixth inning of a one-run game, right-handed hitting Brent Rooker pinch-hit for Pratto as the Royals played the righty-lefty matchup against Rays reliever Colin Poche, who’d held lefties to a .167 batting average and a .267 on-base percentage. The Royals would lose the series finale at Tampa Bay 3-2.
“We’re trying not to put too many guys on the bench too many days in a row, and we’re keeping in certain guys who want and want them to play whether it’s a lefty matchup or not,” Matheny said. “Knowing that as an everyday guy, potentially, in the future you’re going to have to face left on left.”
“Then, when you get a spot later in the game, and you know that they’re hemmed in to where they have to leave that lefty on the mound and you’ve got an opportunity to take a shot with the right-handed hitter and you like the matchup better, we’ll take our shot.”
The Royals are still in the middle of a stretch of 17 games in 16 consecutive days, a span during which Matheny and his staff have vowed to both keep their position players fresh and also give them opportunities, when possible.
Rooker, acquired from the San Diego Padres at the trade deadline, was brought in largely because he’s a right-handed bat who can fill a need among the predominantly lefty group of Royals youngsters.
This season in particular, a case could be made that Rooker, 27, was even more productive in the minors than many of the Royals’ top left-hitting rookies. He slashed .286/.393/.633 with 22 home runs and 22 doubles in 66 Triple-A games this season.
Rooker has pinch-hit at potentially pivotal points against the Twins and Rays within the past week.
Right-handed-hitting center fielder Michael A. Taylor, when not in the starting lineup, has also been called upon in similar situations.
In most cases, Pratto and Isbel have been the left-handers who’ve been taken out.
In a relatively small sample size against left-handers in the majors this season (20 at-bats), Pratto has batted about 100 points higher (.250 compared to .150) and had an on-base percentage 95 points higher (.360 to .255) against left-handed pitching.
Isbel, who has impressed with his outfield defense most of this season, has had his struggles offensively regardless of whether he’s facing lefties (slash line of .205/.244/.231) or righties (.216/.256/.373).
And that’s where the balancing act can again be tricky. Those at-bats against left-handed pitching are needed for individual development.
But with right-handed hitters like Rooker on the roster, in part to be that impact bat off the bench, and the club’s stated prioritization of winning over development, it would seem inconsistent not to play the matchups at all.
So it seems Matheny and his coaching staff will pick their spots, deciding on a case-by-case basis whether to insert a right-handed hitter or give a left-handed-hitting youngster a chance against a southpaw pitcher.
“For the most part, getting some of the guys an opportunity regardless of handedness is something that we’re going to do,” Matheny said. “And we believe that all of our lefties are going to be able to hit left-handed pitching. It’s just sometimes we’re going to give them a chance and see how it all works out.”