Royals Musical Chairs
A 74-win team has plenty of holes, but the Royals suddenly have some depth that might make free agency a difficult maneuver.
Usually a team that finishes in fourth place and 19 games out has an opportunity to upgrade basically all over the field. But the 2022 Royals are in a spot that you have to like if you’re thinking about the 2023-2027 team with some of their offensive issues hopefully being solved by three big-time prospects who had monster seasons in 2021 in the minors. That does make things a little difficult, though, because most rookies don’t exactly roar out of the gates looking like stars immediately, so it could make for some difficult times in 2022.
On that note, and before I get into what they can do on the free agent market, Dan Szymborski wrote up a look at the AL Central on Friday that was quite good and included these preliminary ZiPS projections for Bobby Witt Jr.
Oh. If a player who doesn’t turn 22 until mid-June can put up his 50th percentile numbers, that would be one of the best rookie seasons the Royals have had in a long time. They had three payers with a WAR of 3.0 or higher in 2021. They’ve had seven batters post a WAR of 3.0 or higher in a season since 2016. Heck, they’ve only had nine accumulate three wins or more in that time. So yeah, the expectation is that he can hit the ground running, but could Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez? That obviously remains to be seen.
The inclusion of those three makes the calculus pretty difficult for the Royals. If they want some more guaranteed production (and obviously nothing is guaranteed), they need to go out and make a couple moves. If they want to do the smart thing and let things play out, they should let the kids play and have them take their lumps. As of right now, without the inclusion of any of the three on the roster, they’re set at catcher, first base, second base, third base, shortstop, left field and center field. They likely have a right fielder in Kyle Isbel or Edward Olivares and they likely have a designated hitter in Hunter Dozier.
Add in the big three prospects and you’re talking about a bit of a roster logjam. So basically on the free agent side without any trades, they’re looking at maybe having a spot in right field open. Now, there are moves to be made if they want to. Whit Merrifield has long been a player the Royals could and maybe (probably?) should have moved. Nicky Lopez had a great season, but maybe he’s a sell-high candidate. Andrew Benintendi is only under team control for one more season. If they’re not planning on retaining him long-term, is he someone who can move? And, of course, if they can recoup any value for Carlos Santana, they have to do that, in my opinion.
If they trade either of Merrifield or Lopez, I still believe there’s no hole at shortstop or second. Adalberto Mondesi probably slides to third as the every day guy, but you can argue that they still need to have a backup plan, so that provides a hole at third base. Their options are:
Kris Bryant - It’d be a huge splash and won’t happen, but that would be a nice big bat to put in the middle of a lineup that’s starting to finally skew young.
Josh Harrison - He’s had an OPS above .330 four times in his career, but each of the last two seasons, so maybe he’s figured something out there? If you buy that and trade Merrifield, he could be the guy to hit at the top of the lineup.
Kyle Seager - I would pass, but he could provide some home runs at least. He’ll be 34 next season, though, and I just don’t see the point of giving someone in his mid-30s a deal that he’ll likely require coming off a season where he had a .285 OBP. Just let Mondesi play there when healthy.
Chris Taylor - He’s versatile and always gets on base at a good clip. I have a feeling he’ll have a ton of suitors based on the fact that you can feel pretty good about him everywhere, but he’d be a nice fit on a team playing musical chairs.
They could look to free agency for the outfield with or without a deal for Benintendi. Yes, they have Dozier for one spot, but I still think he fits best at DH. Here are the outfield options:
Bryant - He can play all the corners, so maybe that is a fit if the Royals are willing to pay for him.
Mark Canha - Would you believe Canha has a .377 OBP over the last three seasons with a strikeout rate below 22 percent? He rated terribly defensively in left field this year, which might be noise, might be Oakland’s park or might be a decline for a guy in his 30s. Still, he’s an interesting player.
Nick Castellanos - Aside from ruining big moments with home runs, the guy is just a good hitter, but if he opts out, I’m super intrigued by his market. On one hand, guys who hit .309/.362/.576 don’t grow on trees. On the other hand, he’s a butcher in the outfield and had a sub-.300 OBP in 2020 and was just okay for Detroit before getting traded to the Cubs in 2019, so it’s hard to say what teams will give for him.
Michael Conforto - This one is kind of my dream. He had a bad year in 2021 and that likely means that Scott Boras will be looking for a pillow contract with him and hitters don’t come to Kauffman Stadium to put up numbers on one-year deals, but he’ll be 29 next year and if the Royals wanted to give a guy who consistently has an OBP 100 points above his average a four year deal worth $72 million or something like that, I wouldn’t argue.
Joc Pederson - The postseason star remains a righty killer and a big-time power source when he’s going right. I don’t know, it could be interesting.
Tommy Pham - I’d much rather just roll with a year of Benintendi than give Pham a deal, but the guy can work a walk and has some pop.
Eddie Rosario - Speaking of postseason stars, Rosario will hit the market again and he’ll have a sparkling NLCS on his resume. He was outstanding for the Braves after they picked him up, but struggled with Cleveland, so it’s hard to know which guy you’re getting, but it’s a pretty good bet you’re getting a guy with a low-OBP and solid enough power. Is that an upgrade on Benintendi?
Jorge Soler - I mean, we know he can hit bombs at The K. It’s not happening, but he’s a free agent.
Taylor - I mentioned he can play just about anywhere, right?
For my money, if they are only looking for one spot and can’t get Conforto or maybe Castellanos, I’d just see what Isbel/Olivares have and call it a day. But it’s probably worth noting that the 2022/2023 outfield free agent class is not what you’d call elite, so if a team wants to do some next offseason shopping now, that would make sense.
I’ll take a look at some free agent pitchers later this week.
Duffy Return Announced
You might remember when the Royals traded Danny Duffy for a player to be named later that I had heard from one source that the PTBNL didn’t hinge on how many innings he threw from the Dodgers. Then another told me that it did. I think the latter source was correct here. I don’t mean that to besmirch Zach Willeman’s good name, but I think there was more possibility here if Duffy had thrown a single pitch for the Dodgers.
Willeman is a righty with a potentially big fastball, but he’s had some velocity issues off and on since his return from Tommy John a couple years ago. The numbers were okay for him in AA with a decent strikeout rate but too many walks in 47.2 innings and he was reasonably difficult to hit with just a .111 ISO allowed. You can add his name to the list of Rule 5 eligible players the Royals have. I would be a bit surprised if he was picked, so they may try to slide him through, but we’ll see.