On January 13th, the Kansas City Royals Twitter account released their list of non-roster invitees to Spring Training in Surprise. Here is the tweet below:
While the Royals will have a lot of intrigue with their current 40-man roster in terms of who will make the Opening Day 26-man roster, non-roster invitees add a lot of intrigue to Spring Training. For the most part, the non-roster invitees usually consist of prospects whom the Royals brass want to see up against Big League competition, but management is not ready to see those prospects start their Major League clock time by putting them on the 40-man roster. Some of the biggest names on the Royals prospect lists are expected to get some serious looks in Surprise, including pitcher Brady Singer, Khalil Lee, and Kyle Isbel, who rank 2, 4, and 8, respectively in the Royals farm system, according to MLB.com.
Prospects usually generate the most interest of the non-roster invitees. That being said, the list usually will include those “bounce-back” candidates who are signed to minor league deals in the off-season. Usually these guys are low-risk deals: if they flub in the spring as expected, it won’t cost the club a pretty penny. However, if they show promise in Spring Training, they could have an impact not only on the 40-man roster, but perhaps the active 26-man one as well come Opening Day.
Though each player from the non-roster list the Royals released will bring their own share of intrigue, I narrowed the list to three guys who have the most to prove this spring in Surprise. Let’s take a look at the three players who could use a a strong Spring Training to start the 2020 season.
Trevor Rosenthal, Relief Pitcher
It’s amazing that Rosenthal has not even turned 30 yet, as it feels like the Lee’s Summit native and former Cardinals closer has been in the league forever. The 29-year-old right handed pitcher will be a hot topic this Spring, as he is an outside candidate to boost a bullpen that struggled with inconsistency the past two seasons (though 2019 was certainly better than 2018). Furthermore, in addition to returning to the KC Metro (Rosenthal went to high school at Lee’s Summit West), he will also be reuniting with Mike Matheny, the new Royals manager who once employed Rosenthal as the closer with the Cardinals.
However, while the Rosenthal story will be one that the Royals will make sure to emphasize in Spring Training, the right hander carries plenty of risk, which explains why he was offered a Minor League, not Major League, deal this off-season. After saving 45 and 48 games in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and accumulating 5.4 WAR between 2013 and 2015, Rosenthal fell off a cliff quickly. In 2016, early-season struggles led to Rosenthal losing his closer’s job, and he finished the year with a 4.46 ERA and 0.2 WAR, a 2.36 increase, and 1.8 decrease in those categories, respectively. One could mostly attribute Rosenthal losing the closer’s job due to the regression in his command and control, as his walk rate increased from 3.28 to 6.47, and his K/BB ratio decreased from 3.32 to a pedestrian 1.93.
Rosenthal bounced back in 2017, as he pitched 47.2 innings and posted a 3.40 ERA, 2.17 FIP, and 1.6 WAR, vast improvements from his lackluster 2016. However, shortly after winning the Cardinals closer job back, it was revealed that he needed Tommy John surgery in August, which not only put him on the shelf for the remainder of 2017, but 2018 as well.
Unfortunately for Rosenthal, the Cardinals decided not keep him, and Rosenthal struggled in his first-season back pitching (as many TJ survivors do, with Kyle Zimmer being a prime example). Rosenthal bounced between the Washington Nationals and Detroit Tigers last year and failed to do much with either club, as he only accumulated 15.1 innings with both clubs, and posted a 13.50 ERA with both clubs in limited work. Hence, it’s not surprising that not many clubs were eager to give him a Major League deal after a season where he posted a minus-0.3 WAR.
Despite his lackluster return, Rosenthal offers the Royals a lot of upside. While Scott Barlow and Tim Hill excelled in the second half as Royals set-up men, they are not exactly proven commodities, and beyond them, there are a lot of question marks in the Royals bullpen. Rosenthal offers a veteran presence, and a familiar face for Matheny that the manager could rely on in tough spots. However, while Rosenthal on paper has what it takes to boost the Royals pen, he has to prove he can pitch again at the Major League level, which he failed to do in 2019.
If Rosenthal can partially be himself again (which is a hard-throwing, late-innings specialist) and excel this Spring, then it would not be surprising to see Rosenthal not just swipe a fellow pitcher’s spot on the 40-man, but perhaps the 26-man as well. The Royals want him to succeed, but he has to prove himself first before they just give him a Royals jersey on Opening Day or during the 2020 season in general.
MJ Melendez, Catcher
The 21-year-old catching prospect out of Florida was the Royals’ sixth-best prospect, according to Baseball America, a season ago, and has widely been viewed as the Royals best catching prospect in their farm system. Though Salvador Perez returns to action this season after missing 2019 due to Tommy John, it is questionable how long Salvy will be able to hold down things behind the plate in Kansas City. And unfortunately, while Cam Gallagher and Meibrys Viloria offer some positive aspects at the catching position, it is unlikely that either of them can be considered the heir-apparent to Salvy.
Melendez, on the other hand, has the profile of a guy who could be the Royals backstop in a few seasons. He’s young, has solid defensive tools (BA rated his field tool a 60 and arm a 60), and he has some power upside, as he hit 19 home runs in the South Atlantic League with Lexington in 2018. That being said, while Melendez came into Wilmington with a lot of promise, he failed to impress in the Carolina League at the plate. After posting a .251/.322/.492 slash with 19 home runs over 472 plate appearances in 2018, Melendez’s line regressed to a sub-par .163/.260/.311 slash with only 9 home runs over 419 plate appearances with Blue Rocks in 2019. While Wilmington and the Carolina League is knowing for sapping power (fellow top prospects Nick Pratto and Seuly Matias also went through hitting struggles in 2019 with Wilmington), Melendez’s regression went beyond just being a victim of a “pitcher-friendly” environment. Melendez simply looked lost at the plate at times, as evidenced by a 39.4 strikeout rate, nearly nine percent higher from 2018.
Despite losing the luster on his prospect star this past season, the Royals still deemed him worthy of an invite to Spring Training, which neither Pratto nor Matias received. Furthermore, Melendez still received strong marks for his defense in 2018, and there is hope that if Melendez can make some adjustments as a hitter, he can experience a bounce back season that can get him back on track to succeed Perez in the near future behind the plate.
If there is one positive aspect of Matheny as a manager, it’s that he is known for mentoring catchers. Thus, Matheny may want to get a glimpse of Melendez this Spring and see if Melendez can indeed be worthy of the Royals starting catching spot in the near future. If Melendez can respond to Matheny’s tutelage, and if we see some legitimates strides in Melendez’s hitting this Spring (i.e. a cut down in the strikeouts), then it is possible that Melendez could build on that momentum in Surprise to have a turnaround in 2020. The stage is set for him to be the Royals catcher of the future, for the Royals don’t have a whole lot of depth at catcher in their system currently.
But if he continues to whiff and struggle against big league pitching in the Cactus League? Well…Salvy may be asked to man the catcher’s spot for a little bit longer than expected, which could be expensive as his contract will expire after 2021.
Brady Singer, Starting Pitcher
The Royals rotation seems set one-through-four for 2020. Barring injury this Spring, it will be Brad Keller, Jakob Junis, Mike Montgomery, and Danny Duffy in some kind of order (I think it will go as listed, but I could see Duffy go anywhere in the 2-4 range). However, while the Royals 1-4 spots in the rotation seem set, the number 5 spots appears to be a question mark that may not be settled until Opening Day.
As of now the Royals have a few options, but none of them inspire the Royals masses. Glenn Sparkman had his moments, but he finished the year with 11 losses, a 6.02 ERA, and a minus-0.5 WAR over 136 innings. Jorge Lopez may have the best stuff out of possible No. 5 candidates, but he posted a 6.57 ERA over 86 innings as a starter, and probably ought to get a full-go in the pen in order to retain some kind of value at the Major League level. And even though Jesse Hahn formerly was a starter in Oakland, it’s unlikely he’ll return to that role in Kansas City, especially after returning from Tommy John surgery that nearly cost him two seasons of play.
To make matters worse, it seems like Dayton Moore won’t be adding anything in free agency to solve this dilemma. After striking gold with Homer Bailey a year ago (they not only got some quality innings, but he also fetched some prospect return in a trade), Moore seems hesitant to make a similar signing this off-season. Granted, the off-season isn’t completely over yet, but with pitcher and catchers set to report in less than a month, it seems less and less likely that Moore will be adding a pitcher to the rotation this off-season.
Thus, it will be interesting to see if Singer will get a shot to prove that he can make the Royals rotation this Spring. While he has only pitched one full year as a professional, and hasn’t progressed above Double-A, Singer could make a case for the Royals’ fifth spot if he dominates this Spring in the Cactus League. After all, Singer does not have much more to prove, as he is the 52nd best prospect in baseball, according to MLB.com, and posted a 3.47 ERA and 3.57 xFIP over 90.2 innings in the Texas League a year ago, which widely profiles as a hitter’s league. Furthermore, the Pacific Coast League probably would be more of a tune up than a place for actual development for Singer, since he will be facing more four-A players rather than top prospects. And lastly, if you believe in the TNSTAAPP principle (there is no such thing as a pitching prospect), the Royals would be better served just by bringing Singer up and seeing what he can do at the Big League level than simply nudging him along, especially with inferior options filling in at the end of the rotation.
Of course, he has to deal on the mound in the Spring. Even if he is just slightly above average, that may not be enough, especially considering how valuable a prospect’s service time is and the contract ramifications it could have on a small-market club like Kansas City. However, if Singer does impress Matheny and pitching coach Cal Eldred this Spring, it will put a lot of pressure on them to bring up Singer on Opening Day, especially if the alternatives are Sparkman or Lopez.
Yes, the Royals have to be wise financially to build a consistent winner beyond 2020. But if Singer performs this Spring, well…let’s just say the Royals fan base will be wildly clamoring for his Kauffman debut sooner rather than later, much akin to Yordano “Ace” Ventura in 2013.
(Let’s just watch it for good measure…RIP Ace.)