4 Storylines for Royals Spring Training
It's starting later than we had hoped, but it's finally starting.
MLB IS BACK…once the CBA is ratified!
The lockout is basically in the books and now we can look forward to at least not having to hear about labor issues for at least a few more seasons. As teams start to get back on the field to ready themselves for exhibition baseball, we can get back to talking about the actual product on the field rather than how they’re going to get back on the field. And with that, every year I like to look at storylines and questions that we’ll have for this team as they enter their 20th season in Surprise (yeah, that…surprised…me too).
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I wrote about this a few weeks ago and without having seen any action on the field, there still obviously isn’t clarity, but this is the biggest battle we’ll see throughout the spring that has a big impact on the actual team. Ignoring first base for a second, the Royals have five candidates to play three spots. You’ve got Nicky Lopez, Whit Merrifield, Adalberto Mondesi, Emmanuel Rivera and some kid named Bobby Witt Jr. I guess you can include Hunter Dozier in there, but I think his third base days outside of a game here or there are pretty much done.
We’ve talked about this enough that you know the options. There are a handful of solutions to this. Merrifield and Lopez were gold glove caliber defenders at second and short in 2021. But Merrifield’s bat is pretty clearly in decline and Lopez appeared to break out, but with so little in the way of power, he’s never too far away from falling off a cliff. Arguably the two most talented players in the organization are Mondesi and Witt. Both can play shortstop at a high level. Mondesi has done it in the big leagues, Witt hasn’t. But Mondesi has also not shown himself to be a good enough big league hitter for any real length of time to hold off one of baseball’s top prospects.
Both of those two could play third base. Mondesi shifted there at the end of last season because Lopez had earned the right to stay at shortstop. Witt played 18 games at third base in 2021 between AA and AAA and it might actually end up as his best position. But then you add Rivera to the mix, who I think has to do WAY more work than the rest to make this roster, at least as a starter, but the Royals are quite happy with his development and he’s a solid defender who hit the ball hard in his limited big league time.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. This is a bigger spring for Lopez than I think people are ready to admit. He hit .228/.279/.307 in his first 594 plate appearances before hitting .300/.365/.378 last year in 565 plate appearances. If he has a spring like he did in 2021 where he lost his starting job at second and got demoted before Mondesi’s injury saving him, he’d have been at the alternate site to start the year and likely AAA for a good chunk. There’s room on the roster for at least all four of the above listed outside of Rivera so I don’t think he’s in huge danger of starting the year in the minors, but he could be pushed to a utility role with a tough spring.
I’m going to put on my tinfoil hat here for a second and look ahead to a world where the Royals young pitching almost universally improves from last season to 2022. We saw flashes from Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic and Carlos Hernandez and, yes, even Brady Singer. We saw what they could be if they reach their ceilings. But we also saw that they aren’t there yet. But what if they do reach those ceilings or get close to it in 2022? I’m extremely curious to see how they come into camp throwing.
Since December 2, they haven’t been allowed to work with the team. Any work they’ve done to hone their craft would have to be done with someone outside of the organization. Think back to Jorge Soler breaking out and having the monster year in 2019. He worked outside the organization (mostly, Pedro Grifol was there and now the guys are part of the organization, but that’s another story) and had the year he had. What if there’s a similar impact from these pitchers? Sure they were forced outside the organization because of the lockout, but they still got their instruction from elsewhere.
So we’re in this world where, let’s say, Lynch and Hernandez look like legitimate 2/3 starters and Bubic is a 3/4 starter with consistency. Who gets that credit? It’s a question we don’t have to worry about just yet, but watching them come into spring training will be the first part of that journey.
We all know how difficult a season it was in 2019 for basically everybody who picked up a bat. It’s a broken record now that they revamped the hitting development and then we didn’t truly get to see it in action because of the 2020 shortened season that didn’t feature any minor league baseball. Then we saw the explosion in 2021. It wasn’t every struggling hitter turning things around. Seuly Matias still had his share of struggles. Erick Peña wasn’t a struggling bat in 2019, but he also struggled in 2021. The point is it wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty darn good.
So now as a condensed spring starts, the Royals will do their best to get looks at all of these guys who it seems like can start a pipeline of bats that should allow the Royals to focus resources on rounding out the pitching staff, which tends to cost a bit more. I think the shortened spring is probably bad news for MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto because they just haven’t gotten the reps. They could come to camp and dominate, but players like them were hurt the most from the lockout, in my opinion. So they’ll have a brief chance to shine to see if they can make the roster to start the year, but I would predict both those guys go to AAA. It’s probably not the worst thing for Pratto with some of his strikeout issues, but I think Melendez would have had a real shot if they had a full spring.
But then there are the others. We all know about Witt, and I think he’ll make the team. But there has been a ton written about Nick Loftin in minor league camp. He doesn’t seem terribly likely to make a push for the big league roster, but he’s probably closer than I would have predicted a year ago. Michael Massey is a bat who will be watched very closely. Vinnie Pasquantino is one of the more fun prospects out there just because guys who jump from non-prospects to legitimate prospects will always be exciting.
The Royals had 11 players with an ISO of .200 or higher with at least 300 plate appearances in the minors last year. One of them was Ryan McBroom and he’s left to play overseas, but the other 10 were all 25 or younger. Rivera was one. This is a big year for him. His spring will be huge because there are younger guys who are gunning for his spot. They had 19 players with a wOBA of .350 or higher with the same 300 plate appearances last year. It goes beyond the big three (and Vinnie) in this organization.
I’m not sure how the spring schedule will be configured, but there are only so many at bats to go around unless they ramp up the split squads, which is very possible. Early spring is usually a great time for players who aren’t especially likely to make the team but are still in big league camp to catch the eyes of the big league staff. He isn’t a hitter, but Matt Strahm comes to mind with Ned Yost a few years ago. He threw great in spring 2016 and then was awesome out of the bullpen later that year. We’ll see if they get that time, but these young bats are big storylines because we know the offensive development works in the minors. Let’s find out if it translates to the majors.
The Royals team could very easily be complete. I’ve talked about that quite a bit over the last few weeks. They have players to fill every spot and, depending on your opinions, filled capably. They actually have too many infielders, as we’ve dove into quite a bit plus some big prospects on the way. Free agency is going to be absolutely crazy over the next few days and with a whirlwind, some teams are going to be left out in the cold. I think the Royals could very easily make a move and pounce on a crazy free agent market that might find them a bargain. I think I’ve made it very clear that I think Michael Conforto is a perfect fit, but I digress.
The big question I have for the Royals, other than the random reliever they sign, is what they can do with Carlos Santana. There are teams who could use him and with the National League adopting the DH this year as well, there are more spots for him. I’ve said before that it probably won’t hurt for him to have a strong spring to prove it was his hip that caused his issues, so he’s someone to watch very closely. But with all the Royals young pitching, both starters and relievers, do they look to move someone like Scott Barlow? I don’t know the answer to that, but this spring will be the craziest ever in terms of teams changing from game to game once they get started.
I’m so glad to actually be able to write about real baseball things. Let’s play ball!