We’re approaching the one-year anniversary of Inside the Crown launching and while spring training hadn’t quite started, it was close enough that I didn’t get my first roster projection in until workouts had already gotten going. So this year I wanted to start a little earlier and have something before spring starts. Now, admittedly we have no idea when spring training will start because of the owners locking out the players. But we can forget that for a moment and take a look at my projection for the bats as of right now and I’ll get to the pitchers tomorrow.
For this projection, I’ll use 2021 stats.
Catcher - Salvador Perez
This one as of this moment is pretty easy. Salvador Perez is the top dog and Cam Gallagher is the backup. He’s a good backup too. The future, though, is not him. Well, maybe it is. I think we could see a three catcher setup, but MJ Melendez is the guy who will take the spot at some point. The good problem to have is that if both Melendez and Perez are playing as well as possible, both bats will need to be in the lineup, so you’ll see a lot of DH and maybe even first base for them.
If Melendez could handle a corner outfield spot or something like that, that makes it easier, but it’s hard to say that he can. I think he starts the year in AAA and if he keeps doing what he did in 2021, he’ll be up quick. I also think he has a chance to win a spot on the Opening Day roster, but that’s why I’ll do more of these as spring progresses.
Others to watch: Sebastian Rivera
First Base - Carlos Santana
This is probably the toughest position to figure, aside from navigating the infield spots below. If the season started today, Carlos Santana would be the first baseman and probably hitting sixth in the lineup. But the Royals are likely going to push hard to move him once the lockout is over. So while he’s the starting first baseman at this moment, he might not even be on the roster by the time spring starts. So maybe I am doing this too early. Nevertheless.
Behind him on the right now depth chart is Hunter Dozier. You know I have an affinity for Dozier and have noted a million times how much better he was down the stretch. Defensively, he’s a DH, but I think he’s fine enough at first in the interim. And that interim is because the Royals have one prospect knocking on the door, just like behind the plate. That’s Nick Pratto. Like Melendez, I think he’ll be up pretty quickly if he earns that promotion and if Santana is moved, he has a chance to break camp with the team with a big spring.
The interesting thing about first base (and DH) is that there’s another player behind Pratto. Actual depth in the system! Vinnie Pasquantino went from fun story with a cool name to an actual good prospect in 2021. His bat is his carrying tool and while Pratto could probably succeed in a corner outfield spot with some work, Pasquantino is a first baseman or DH. But he’s not far behind either.
Others to watch: None
Second Base - Whit Merrifield
This is where the puzzle pieces get weird. Whit Merrifield is the incumbent and was a worthy Gold Glove finalist in 2021. His bat, though, declined. It declined a bit from 2019 to 2020 too. Heading into his age-33 season that’s not a great trend. Still, at the start of camp, I believe it is his job. Because of his versatility, his role depends a bit on right field and a bit on third base.
So the Royals have him and they also have Nicky Lopez who was a worthy Gold Glove finalist at second base in his own right in 2020 and his bat came mostly alive in 2021. They also have Adalberto Mondesi who played second when he was first coming up, though he’s a natural shortstop and was a third baseman when he came back in September.
That’s not to mention that there are second base prospects on the way as well. Nick Loftin is one of my choices to be a big-time prospect list riser. He could play second. Michael Massey had a big 2021. He could play second. Peyton Wilson isn’t especially close, but he’s someone a lot of scouts like. He could play second. None of these players are going to be ready to start the year and unlike Melendez and Pratto, they likely won’t have much of a shot early in the year either. I’d guess the earliest you’d see someone like Loftin would be August or September and I’m not sure I’d predict that even.
Others to watch: None
Third Base - Bobby Witt Jr.
This is the biggest positional battle of the spring right here. If healthy, Adalberto Mondesi is on the roster. Does he play second, third or short? I don’t know, but I’m guessing it’s not second. The other option at third is none other than one of the top three prospects in baseball according to literally every prospect ranking site, Bobby Witt Jr. So this is where it truly does get interesting.
If Witt wins the job, which I think he does, how does that shape the rest of the team. Does he play third with Mondesi taking a utility role and Lopez and Merrifield at second and short respectively? Or does Mondesi play short with Witt at third and Merrifield at second? Or maybe Lopez is at second and Mondesi is in right? There are so many questions here that spring is actually pretty important for the team to figure these things out.
My gut right at this moment is that Witt takes the job at third and Mondesi is not an everyday player, though he does play quite a bit. Expect this to change roughly 37 times during spring. There are just so many variables here.
Others to watch: Emmanuel Rivera
Shortstop - Nicky Lopez
When Mondesi came off the IL in September, the Royals didn’t put him back at shortstop. They left Lopez there. And that’s what I’m starting my roster projections with too. His .365 OBP in 2021 was the best on the team regardless of plate appearances (unless you include Jake Brentz, who drew a walk in his one plate appearance). And it was best on the team by 28 points over Kyle Isbel, who had 83 plate appearances. When you combine that with his defense that he displayed, it’s hard for me to put him anywhere else in the first projection.
We know how finicky this is, though. Mondesi and Witt can both play there. Who else boasts three legitimate big league shortstops? I wondered, so I went through each team. The Guardians (Amed Rosario, Andres Gimenez, Tyler Freeman and Gabriel Arias), Rangers (Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Isaiah Kiner-Falefa) and Padres (Fernando Tatis Jr., CJ Abrams and Jake Cronenworth) all probably qualify. The Rays and Blue Jays might have three, but they also might only have one. It’s not necessarily a good thing to have that many options. It’s just rare.
The point is that this can change on a dime even during the season. I wrote on Royals Review last week that Lopez probably has the most important spring of anyone this year. He’s the incumbent, but he has two players nipping at his heels. One is Witt who, as mentioned, is one of baseball’s very best prospects. The other is Mondesi who has something to prove as he’s just 20 months from free agency for the first time. The contract year is undefeated, but sometimes a players needs two of those years to wash out the rest and Mondesi might be one of those guys. This infield battle is intriguing.
Others to watch: None
Left Field - Andrew Benintendi
Assuming he’s healthy, this is Andrew Benintendi’s job. I would anticipate the Royals will try to extend him before the season even if I don’t think it’s the best idea. But it’s not like he’s 33 or something. He’ll be 28 in 2023, which would be the first year of a new deal. If they locked him up for something like four years, including 20222, they’d have him through his age-30 season, so there are definitely worse things than a solid player on what I assume won’t be a massive deal. Still, there’s no competition here.
He’ll be backed up by Dozier for now and probably some Isbel and Merrifield. I still would like to see Mondesi play some outfield too, but it sounds like that’s not a route they’re going to take.
Center Field - Michael A. Taylor
Like left, this isn’t much of a question, at least not right now. The Royals extended Michael A. Taylor for two years, so he’s going to start those two years playing every day in center. And while the bat may be a problem, the defense is not. I wrote about how the team can support that glove to keep his bat in the lineup a few weeks ago.
I still think they could use a backup who they fully trust in center field. Maybe that’s Isbel. I thought he looked pretty good out there when Taylor was dealing with family issues in September. If Isbel played some center against tough righties with maybe Merrifield shifting to right and Mondesi sliding in at second or short, I think that would be best for the team. But I could also see them looking for someone to be a fourth outfielder who can bat right-handed to help out with Isbel and Benintendi against tough lefties and can also handle center. Someone like Jake Marisnick fits the bill there, but I’d much prefer the internal option.
Right Field - Kyle Isbel
Kyle Isbel won this job in spring 2021 and I think he re-wins it in 2022. I wrote about him a few weeks ago too and he seems to have figured a lot of things out offensively. He’s also the reason why I don’t see a need to sign Benintendi long-term. The team has a bunch of bats on their way up and while there aren’t many outfielders in that (right now), there are a lot of middle infielders who often do well shifting to the outfield. Isbel provides a type of hitter the Royals don’t have a ton of right now. He’s sort of like what Lopez would look like if he could drive the ball. For my money, I’d lead off with Isbel.
Of course, Dozier will be behind him as will Merrifield. And others could knock on the door. I said “right now” in the last paragraph because you never know who will emerge with the Royals doing so much better at developing bats. I’ve mentioned Brewer Hicklen’s strong finish recently. If he can maintain that, he’s the kind of player who could make a strong push for the big leagues in 2022. There’s also Edward Olivares, who everyone including me was clamoring for throughout the season. The Royals don’t like his defense, but he’s athletic and the hope is that it can improve.
Beyond that, I don’t think you can fully rule out a free agent signing if someone believes they’re left without a chair when things get crazy before spring starts.
Other outfielders to watch: John Rave, Tucker Bradley
Designated Hitter - Hunter Dozier
This starts as Dozier, I believe. He doesn’t have a position and he does have a contract. But I think there’ll be a rotation of some sort with Mondesi getting time here along with of course Salvy and Santana and maybe even some Merrifield to keep him a little fresher this season. I think we’ll see some Melendez here at some point too during the season.
Others to watch: Anyone mentioned above other than Lopez and Taylor
Bench - Cam Gallagher, Adalberto Mondesi, Kevin Pillar and Emmanuel Rivera
As of right now, Gallagher is the backup catcher, no question. So he’s on the bench. I have Mondesi as a backup who probably plays 4-5 days a week, but he’s on the bench. The question is the other two spots as I’m guessing they go back to the initial 26-man roster plan of limiting teams to 13 pitchers. Merrifield’s ability to play the outfield helps this roster to be so flexible that they could go a lot of directions here.
I think they sign a free agent to be a fourth outfielder and I’m going to predict it’s Kevin Pillar, which I will absolutely hate because I just know he’ll take time away from Isbel. And then the fourth bench bat will be between Ryan O’Hearn, who I’ve chosen not to mention until now and Rivera, who I barely mentioned at third. For my sanity, I’m going to predict it’s Rivera. He can play first, third and pinch hit for any of the lefties against a tough lefty reliever. I am not at all confident in this part of the projection.
Stay tuned tomorrow for the first pitcher projections.
It will be so interesting to see how they use Mondi, and if/when Vinny will beat the door down to arrive. If I was JJ, I would get the Big 3 up right away (unless someone looks awful in Spring Training), look nowhere outside the system for hitters (as it seems we have plenty who need to have the time to show us what they can do/settle in), and start thinking about what shifting will be needed to bring Vinny up when he is ready. So, instead of Opening Day, I guess I am (probably looking a bit later in the year, when Santana is gone and Dozier is on the bench or traded), but thinking "sooner the better" to get the rookies up, as we know it took Cain/Hosmer/Moose a year to so to get it going at the MLB level, so the sooner we start that, the sooner we can have another 2014 and 2015 - so don't let Santana, Dozier and others clog that process, bad contracts or not.
So, how do we get the Big 4 into starting roles as they do/will deserve? Where is Mondi's, MJ's, and Vinny's spots? How can we crowd/fit them all into our (hopefully the sooner the better this year) roster as starters to get their MLB at bats going? And assuming (and hopefully we will) keep our other worthy starters as starters. Knowing that Mathenty likes dependable/regular starters up the middle, that might take Mondi out as SS/2B and leave him at 3B. I am hoping that, like Lorenza, we can help Mondi to overcome his injury problems in which case, to me, he is most definitely to be considered as part of our next championship core. With all these variables, but the major goal being to get our next championship core up and settling in, that moves Whit to the outfield as he is declining and will only get worse over time, so he may or not be part of the next core, but he should not clog any of our new Big 4 (or clog Isbel if we is worthy to be part of our next championship core). Do not be quick to extend Benny as we may not need him (someone teach Olivares how to play an above average corner outfield spot). Long term, where can Vinny play? DH or 1B? Do you lose too much with 1B defense with Vinny over Pratto? Can MJ fit in a corner outfield spot until Salvy declines, without losing his catching skills. These are the kinds of problems you like to have my friends!
We are going to be treated to another year of a transitioning roster, and I love it. This time around seems even more exciting then the transition made when Hos and company rose to the big leagues. And, its coming from both sides of the ball. The roster we see on opening day will not be the roster we see on the last day, or even mid season. Weather and of course the CBA will have a determination on the timing. Honestly, as soon as the weather gets nice, I want to see as many New young players as soon as possible. I haven't been at the K since Covid started, but I can't wait to be out there this year.