Crystal Ball: Predicting the 2022 Opening Day Position Players

When all that's left to play is games against other teams going nowhere, this is the way.

Photos by Minda Haas Kuhlmann

One of the hallmarks of being a fan of a losing team is thinking about next year because next year is always going to be better. Okay, sure, not everyone has that mindset, but especially when you follow a team that has recently been ranked in the top five of all the farm systems in baseball and most of the best talent is close, it’s actually pretty easy to dream a little. You mix in a second half where the Royals are over .500 and getting there by playing some generally pretty good teams up until now and you can start to feel like maybe they’re turning the corner just a little bit.

Will they win more than they lose in 2022? I don’t know. Will they compete for a playoff spot? I don’t know that either. What do I know? The answer is not much. But I think that we’ll be watching a more entertaining team and one that, if it all comes together, will largely be the core of the team that does compete for championships. Well…mostly. So let’s take a look into the future at the 2022 position players and remember that I reserve the right to claim a damaged crystal ball if any of this is wrong. Tomorrow, we’ll examine the pitchers.

Catchers

Well, the starter is pretty easy. We all know that it’ll be Sebast…oh right, they extended that Salvador Perez guy. All he’s done is gone out and hit more home runs than any primary catcher ever has before and is now challenging the team home run record, which used to be paltry but is now very respectable. He might be the first 50-home run hitter in team history. And he’ll play more than 125 games behind the plate. Just bonkers.

Here are the catchers on Opening Day:

Perez
Sebastian Rivero
MJ Melendez

Yes, I think Melendez makes the Opening Day roster. He has massively cut down on his strikeouts and has shown the kind of power that had us all excited about him a few years ago. His 2019 was so bad that he fell off prospect maps, but I think he’s going to be on this team and listed as a catcher. But I don’t think he’ll only play there. He’s been working at third in the minors and Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo specifically mentioned that he can play outfield as well. My guess is there’s some movement for him around the diamond and he ends up catching 50-60 games with Perez DHing when he’s catching and the Royals keep Rivero for a bit as well, but he doesn’t play much and ultimately gets sent down.

You might wonder where Cam Gallagher is, and as sad as it is to say goodbye (this isn’t sarcasm, I really like Gallagher), he’s a roster casualty of improvement working its way through the system.

Infield

This is the spot with the most moving parts and possibilities. It’s easy to see the infield looking like it has on most nights lately with Adalberto Mondesi at third, Nicky Lopez at short, Whit Merrifield at second and Carlos Santana at first. But where does that Bobby Witt Jr. guy play? And what about Nick Pratto? And does Hunter Dozier end up back on the infield? It’s a lot, but looking into my crystal ball, here’s what I see to start the year:

Santana, 1B
Merrifield, 2B
Lopez, SS
Witt, 3B

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Mondesi is obviously on the roster and he can handle any of the non-first base spots. He probably could handle first too, for whatever that’s worth. Dozier is also on the roster and he can play first and can stand at third. But here is where the moving parts come into play. As of right now, Merrifield and Lopez have earned their spots in the middle infield. The defense has been impeccable and the offense is enough to keep them there. For now. I’m not saying Lopez is definitely going to regress next year because his style lends itself to a higher than average BABIP, but there’s a chance that his lack of power bites him again. Maybe not like it did in 2019 and 2020, but he could find himself better in a utility role at some point next season.

If that happens, Mondesi would slide in at third most days with Witt moving over to shortstop. This is a very good problem to have. The Royals have as much depth at shortstop as any team I’ve seen in Kansas City in awhile. It’s impressive.

But where’s Pratto? I think he’s basically ready, but I would like to see fewer strikeouts. And with Santana’s struggles this season, I wonder if there’s a world where Pratto and Santana never share a roster. I think Pratto starts the year in the minors and Santana gets a few weeks to show that 2021 was about injury issues. If Santana doesn’t hit, he’s gone and Pratto comes up. If Santana does hit, as long as Pratto is hitting in AAA, he’s up by May and Santana slides to DH regularly.

There is potentially a trade coming as well. While Moore is still running the team, Picollo in charge changes the calculus a bit of what we can expect because there are definitely some unknowns regarding how he’s likely to build a roster. Maybe Pratto is a trade candidate with Melendez getting work at first base (though that really wastes his arm). Maybe Melendez is a trade candidate to bring in a legitimate ace. That’s what we don’t know and the crystal ball isn’t calibrated to Picollo. So we’ll see about that.

Outfield

You thought the infield had a lot of moving parts? Just wait until you see what’s going on here. Right now, Andrew Benintendi, Kyle Isbel, Dozier and Edward Olivares are under team control for 2022. The team really likes Michael A. Taylor and I think there’s a good chance he comes back, but putting the puzzle together makes it sort of difficult to see how he fits. I think Mondesi ends up getting the majority of his work in right field next season, though they might see what he can do in center and be satisfied with the depth that is Isbel out there. And he has been impressive defensively in a limited sample.

Honestly, I can look at the outfield in the morning one day and have a totally different opinion about how it shakes out before lunch that same day. Do they say that Taylor is a necessity if they decide to put Mondesi in the outfield on at least a semi-regular basis? Maybe. Or does Taylor become a defensive luxury they’re not all that worried about if they find themselves comfortable enough with Mondesi to play him regularly there? These are questions that my crystal ball is having a hard time answering, but I ultimately think the difference between Picollo and Moore is that Moore would have Taylor back as a starter before free agency even officially starts while I have a hunch Taylor is elsewhere in 2022 now or back in KC as a backup if he can’t find a starting job.

So here’s how I have it lining up:

Benintendi LF
Isbel CF
Mondesi RF

Backing them up, they’ll have Dozier and Merrifield as potential outfielders and Olivares will continue to be very well acquainted with I-29. There is some potential for the Royals to go out and make a splash here. They could trade for someone like Cedric Mullins or Bryan Reynolds, but I just don’t think they’ll like their defense enough. They could also move Benintendi and have a little more roster flexibility to bring back Taylor and trade for someone like that. But I just don’t see a great fit. I thought Ramon Laureano was a great fit, but being suspended for the first 28 or 29 games (I’m honestly not sure what the first game was) isn’t ideal. They could also sign a free agent like Starling Marte to start, but I think he’ll command too much.

Instead, I’m guessing they look to a fourth outfielder who is accomplished defensively and hits from the right side. Maybe Taylor is that guy. Maybe it’s Jake Marisnick. There aren’t a lot of options, so my crystal ball shows Taylor as a fourth outfielder who gets in there against tough lefties and whenever Mondesi is hurt/on the infield.

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Lineup

This is what I think we see Opening Day:

Merrifield 2B
Lopez SS
Perez C
Benintendi LF
Santana 1B
Mondesi RF
Witt 3B
Melendez DH
Isbel CF

When it comes to Melendez, don’t worry too much about the position. I think he’ll see time in a few spots. But fast forward to, say, June 15, and I think it’s this:

Merrifield 2B
Witt SS
Perez C
Melendez RF
Mondesi 3B
Benintendi LF
Pratto 1B
Dozier DH
Isbel CF

If Lopez proves that this year is the true him, great. Look for Benintendi to be dealt and you’ll see Melendez and Mondesi in the outfield corners. Add in Rivero, Dozier and Taylor to the bench for Opening Day plus another corner bat like say Brad Miller if they go back to the original idea on the 26-man roster rules where teams can carry a maximum of 13 pitchers and there’s your Opening Day 2022 offensive pieces. It’s a lot of reliance on youth, but if guys like Witt and Melendez hit and Pratto comes up and hits as well, that’s a deep lineup and there’s plenty of roster depth to overcome a lot more than they’ve been able to overcome in years.

Truly, this feels like a position player roster that is still a work in progress. I think Benintendi is a candidate to either be moved at any time or inked to stay with the organization for three or four more years. Behind the big three hitting prospects we talk about so much, there is a lot on the way. Guys like Nick Loftin, Michael Massey, Vinne Pasquantino and a handful we likely don’t even think about now should be knocking on the door soon. That’s the value of the overhaul of the offensive development. Holes can be filled internally and if the first patch doesn’t work, the next is more likely to than we’ve seen in a long time with this organization.

The only spot where it feels like an upgrade would be prudent is likely in center field, but I also think they want to see what Isbel can do out there with his re-worked swing and, as I said, he’s shown enough on defense that I think they might be willing to give it a shot, albeit with a handcuff. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine them going out and getting someone for any other position since they have someone within the organization that they at least hope is capable of filling it. So I don’t know if they’ll score runs or not next year, but it appears that the answer will come from players who are at least part of the future plan rather than part of some other team’s past.