World Baseball Classic Provides Opportunity
The Royals have a handful of players heading to play in the WBC. Who can benefit?
I think the World Baseball Classic is one of the absolute coolest things baseball does as a sport. I question sometimes the timing of it for a few reasons, but it’s still very cool. I’m not sure when it would be better, but I feel like it being during the middle of spring training makes for some interesting team situations. Plus, how ready are some of these guys for international competition? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s something I think about a lot. Still, the ability for these guys to go play for their countries in a world competition is very cool and a whole lot of fun to watch.
But with the guys leaving Royals camp - Ronald Bolaños, Max Castillo, Carlos Hernandez, Nicky Lopez, MJ Melendez, Vinnie Pasquantino, Salvador Perez, Brady Singer, Bobby Witt Jr. and Angel Zerpa - it does provide some chances for other players to show off what they can do. Personally, I don’t think I’d leave camp if I was Lopez in a roster battle, but maybe he’s been told that Michael Massey is the clear leader? I don’t really know, but he’s leaving along with a bunch of his teammates. And that opens up a door for guys to find additional plate appearances and innings in their stead. It’s really more about the position players because innings are pretty easy to find with all the spring games they play, but there are a few pitchers who could benefit.
Kris Bubic/Jonathan Heasley/Jackson Kowar
I grouped these three together because I really do get the impression that there are two rotation spots open and the two spots are almost claimed by Daniel Lynch and Brad Keller. Again I’ll stress that the Opening Day roster is one day out of 186 days in the regular season, so things can move quite a bit. And that’s why these extra innings that could be available because of specifically Singer’s absence, but also Castillo, Hernandez and Zerpa missing in action, can be so vital for these three young pitchers. For now it looks like they’re on the outside looking in, but spring training is a time to set up a callup down the road. With a new coaching staff that doesn’t really know much about these guys up close, they have a real chance to show what they can do.
Heasley and Kowar have both pitched already and both really struggled, so their extra opportunities may be even more important. Bubic hasn’t thrown yet, but he’s one of the guys I’m most excited to get to work with this new group of coaches because of the way he approaches the game. I think there will be a very good fit and I wonder a little if Bubic’s life just gets easier by throwing more strikes, which I think he can do with the catching changes they’re working on.
Regardless, this is a big spring for these guys. Assuming Bubic and Kowar don’t make the Opening Day roster, they’ll both be out of options after this season. Heasley will be down to one. Teams like inventory and don’t like being forced to roster a player or risk losing them. So they need to establish themselves this season and that starts in the spring. If the changes on the development side work the way the changes on the hitting development side did, there will be pitchers ready to pass these guys up soon, so the clock is ticking.
Eaton’s inclusion here is actually as much about Drew Waters getting hurt as it is the rest of the WBC guys, but there is also some additional outfield playing time with Melendez being gone. I think he was on the roster before the injury and without Melendez playing for Puerto Rico, but this gives him a chance to show he can be more than a role player. I wrote about Eaton on Friday and what he can bring to the table, but I didn’t really write about his performance at Omaha after he was promoted from Northwest Arkansas.
He hit .295/.376/.510 in 229 plate appearances. That was 22 extra base hits with 21 walks and 48 strikeouts. When you factor in his ability to steal a base with the new rules providing advantages for base stealers, maybe Eaton is even more valuable than the raw offensive numbers would suggest. I’d love to see him make the decisions tough for this team. His versatility is likely going to earn him a roster spot regardless, but he might be able to work his way into playing even more with the added reps he should get.
The Royals roster is interesting in a lot of ways and one is because their current backup catcher is also their main left fielder. And he’s also potentially their leadoff hitter. Do the Royals want Melendez catching 45 times a year? More? Do the Royals want Perez catching less? With the aforementioned versatility of Eaton along with what Melendez can do behind the plate and in the outfield, they could carry Fermin as the third catcher. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure where the at bats are going to come from and I’m fine with him not making the roster and just being ready to go if needed in AAA, but Fermin became intriguing last year.
He’s 28, so I don’t think anyone would argue that he’s a big-time prospect, but he did hit .277/.355/.440 in 2021 between AA and a very small amount of time in AAA. And then he followed that up by hitting .270/.365/.480 in Omaha. And then he followed that up by hitting.404/.482/.566 in Caracas in winter ball. That’s a monster showing in a very competitive winter league. Now, six of his 15 home runs came in one series in August, so that’s something to consider, but a 62:46 strikeout-to-walk ratio will play just fine. And he’s considered to be a very good defender.
The Royals, as currently constructed, have quite a bit of versatility with a bunch of players who can cover infield and outfield. Maybe it’s not the worst use of a roster spot to have a dedicated backup catcher who can work a walk and occasionally can muscle up. And the few weeks when Melendez and Perez will be out of camp will be big for Fermin to make that argument.
I thought this tweet from Anne Rogers (who is doing just an outstanding job as the only beat writer covering this team) was very interesting.
There was a lot of unrest when it was announced that Hunter Dozier would be the third baseman. As I’ve written before, I said at the time that words spoken in January are to be listened to but not fully trusted. One of the big differences, I think, that isn’t talked about much between this staff and the last big league staff is the ability to change their mind. It sure seems like the Royals are willing to let Garcia change their mind. And with Witt playing for Team USA and Lopez for Team Italy, he has a very real shot to play a lot of shortstop. I think I’ve said this before, but I had someone tell me in the offseason that they see Garcia as Tim Anderson with plate discipline and that really stuck with me.
So Garcia is going to probably be playing a lot of shortstop along with Clay Dungan, Tyler Tolbert and someone down the list who I’ll talk about, but Garcia is the clear top guy of that group. He has a chance to show Matt Quatraro & Co. that he can handle himself in the big leagues and he can make their decision very difficult. There are roster spots that I think will ultimately go to a non-roster invite or two and Garcia could take one of those away very easily with a strong performance.
There was a time when someone around the organization told me last year that he believed Gentry would get a shot to win a roster spot in spring training this year. They since acquired Waters, Edward Olivares got healthy and Eaton became a viable option, which means they’re obviously more than fine getting Gentry more time in the minors since he finished the year at AA in 2022, but he was so good there with a .321/.417/.555 line, a 12.1 percent walk rate and 19.9 percent strikeout rate that he’s pretty close. Melendez’s absence opens up some outfield time and maybe Pasquantino allows for some DH time for the team to see him in the box. I see Gentry as a guy who can get on the radar for a quick callup if something is needed.
I mentioned Loftin on Monday as someone who looked good. I think Witt and Lopez’s absence both helps him as well, getting the chance to play some additional infield throughout the spring as a non-roster invite. He was a guy who I thought would shoot up prospect lists last year (I think I’ve said that before) but didn’t. I wonder a little if some of it was learning a new position, but he also addressed some concerns he had with adding as much muscle as he has. I thought coming out of Baylor that he could be something like Alex Bregman-lite and maybe there’s a little extra power there now to reach that.
He isn’t in line to start the season with the club barring enough injuries that we might just stop following entirely. But, like Gentry, he can put himself in a conversation where the coaching staff recalls his spring and wants him up when there is that opportunity. Where does he play? I don’t know if it’s second, third, outfield or as a super utility guy, but if Quatraro runs the team like I think he will, a super utility player may as well be a starter. So there are a lot of opportunities for him over the next few weeks to get into the inner circle.
I do believe that Massey is the starting second baseman as of this moment, so maybe putting him on here doesn’t make as much sense as some of the others. But I think him getting to play without his main competition getting the other half of the reps could help him quite a bit. I believe that Massey can impact a big league roster because he does make good contact when he makes contact. He needs to show he can be a little more particular and make more of that contact. He swung and missed 14.3 percent of the time in Kansas City. The concern is that was actually less than in Omaha where he was very good. If he can get back to what he did in 2021 in high-A and what he did last year in AA and be around 11 percent, he can be a quality big leaguer, maybe even a guy at the top of an order. It’s his show at second while Lopez is gone.
With Pasquantino off to play for Team Italy, Pratto is going to get some extra opportunities to get in the batter’s box. I don’t think the work at first is all that important for him because the team knows what he can do there, but after a .184/.271/.386 showing in his big league debut last year, the organization needs to see more from him. The good, of course, was the power. An ISO of .202 is very good. A 10.4 percent walk rate certainly is good enough. It’s the 36.3 percent strikeout rate and 14.7 percent swinging strike rate that won’t allow him to hit enough.
But it’s not like he’s been written off. Guys like Franmil Reyes and Matt Beaty are in camp as non-roster invites not because the Royals think Pratto is a lost cause but because they believe he’s not ready. I’m not sure what Pratto could do to win a spot on the Opening Day roster at this point other than maybe prove he can play right field, but what he can do is tell them that if/when an injury strikes or if/when they move on from someone in front of him that he’s more equipped now than he was last season to be a big leaguer and he’ll get more chances for the time Pasquantino is out of camp.
Collin Snider/Ryan Weiss/Nick Wittgren
This group of relievers is interesting to me. Weiss and Wittgren are non-roster guys and I haven’t seen an opt-out date for either of them, but Weiss is getting rave reviews from people who have seen him throw and Wittgren has an existing relationship with Brian Sweeney, so I’m curious to see how that works out for these two. Wittgren has struggled already in camp, but Snider is someone who has survived multiple potential cuts and seems to have refined his arsenal as well and, I think, has a fan in bullpen coach Mitch Stetter. So it’ll be interesting for these three, who are currently on the outside looking in, to get some bigger innings against some big leaguers to show their worth.
There are obviously others who are impacted as everyone’s playing time is bumped up with some top tier guys leaving, but these are the 13 who I think stand to benefit the most from the 10 who are heading out for a few days to a couple of weeks. I hope for their sake that they make the decisions the Royals need to make especially difficult because that would be fun for everyone.
I was traveling Saturday and didn't get to watch Saturday's game. It was good to see a baseball game yesterday. I was impressed with Mickael Garcia. He looked like a polished hitter yesterday. I also thought Isbel had 3 good at bats yesterday. Great writing as usual David.
Gosh, I love talking about young players competing for and WINNING starting spots. I'm still haunted by a year in the past the Royals right field spot was basically "won" by default by Emil Brown (I think?). They just had no one else...