In my last post, I talked about four Royals pitchers who had solid Spring Training campaigns in Surprise. In this post, I wanted to take a look at five different Royals position players who earned their spots on the Royals roster. This can be seen in a myriad of ways: it could be that they earned their starting position for 2020 (whenever that may be), or they may have earned a spot on the 26-man roster, which may have not been a guarantee this off-season leading into Spring Training.
So let’s take a look at five Royals players who did well this Spring, and what that could mean for them and the Royals in 2020.
Bubba Starling, OF
The acquisition of Maikel Franco, the move of Hunter Dozier to RF, and the re-signing of Alex Gordon wasn’t exactly the friendliest move to Bubba Starling this off-season. The former Royals first round pick and Gardner native finally made it to the big leagues a season ago, and though he didn’t light it up by any means (he posted a .215/.255/.317 slash with a .572 OPS over 197 plate appearances), his solid defense, and the growth he showed from 2018 to 2019 gave some Royals fans hope that he could snag a starting role in the outfield in 2020. Even if it was a platoon with OF Brett Phillips, that would have been a cause for celebration, especially since many at the end of 2018 thought that Starling’s major league dreams were over.
However, with Gordo, Whit and Doz expected to patrol the OF, things seemed bleak for Starling going into Spring Training, especially since the 27-year-old was out of minor league options. However, despite these odds against him, Starling absolutely raked at the dish in the Cactus League this season. In 34 plate appearances, Starling posted a .367/.441/.767 slash to go along with a 1.208 OPS and three home runs. While he wasn’t facing “elite” competition (BR rated his opponent score a 6.8, which is around Double-A average), he did what he needed to do at the plate, and showed a comfort and command of at-bats that Royals fans didn’t often see in 2019 when he was up in Kansas City.
The Royals have a glut of outfielders on the bench, as Phillips is also expected to make the roster (he did decently, as well this Spring) and Ryan McBroom, though primarily a first-baseman, can also play the outfield as well. So Starling will need to continue his hitting from the Spring to merit any playing time in Kansas City. However, Starling proved this Spring that not only does he have the speed and defense to play with the Royals in 2020, but he also has the potential to provided some offensive production off the bench as well.
Ryan McBroom, 1B/OF
There was a lot of interest in McBroom this off-season, as he did okay when he was acquired last September from the Yankees, posting a .293/.360/.361 slash in 83 plate appearances with the Royals in 2019. Furthermore, the lackluster performance of Ryan O’Hearn in 2019 also potentially opened the door for McBroom to come in and swipe the starting first-base spot, especially if he had a good Spring, and O’Hearn had a lackluster one.
While the latter didn’t happen (more on that later), McBroom did all he could at the plate to prove that there will be some competition at the first base position in 2020. Over 38 plate appearances, McBroom posted a .314/.368/.657 slash to go along with a 1.026 OPS and three home runs and eight RBI. McBroom has had a history of producing in the minors, so the potential is there, though it will be interesting to see if McBroom will shake off the “Four-A” player label that dogged him in the Yankees system.
It seems unlikely that McBroom will be named the starting first-baseman on Opening Day for the Royals. However, with his ability to play the outfield, McBroom has enough versatility to serve as a utility outfielder as well as possibly platoon with O’Hearn, with the possibility of taking over at first should O’Hearn get off to a lackluster start at the plate this season like he did in 2019.
Nicky Lopez, 2B/MI
Lopez came in with a lot of fanfare in 2019, as he was known as a high-contact hitter who got on base, didn’t strike out a whole lot, and provided solid defense up the middle. While Lopez continued to flash the defense at the Major League level in his debut season with the Royals in 2019, the hitting didn’t necessarily translate. Lopez posted a .240/.276/.325 slash with a .601 OPS and 0.35 BB/K ratio, a far cry from his minor league metrics. And if Royals fans remember, he often looked overwhelmed at the plate, especially during the first couple of months when he was called up.
However, over 14 games in September, Lopez finally started to show some prowess at the plate, as he posted a .289/.333/.444 slash with a .778 OPS and sOPS+ of 110. The 110 sOPS+ was his best monthly number in that metric in 2019, as it was nearly 45 points higher than his previous high, which occurred in June. While the nice finish to the year was promising, Lopez needed to show more in order for the Royals to justify starting Lopez over All-Star Merrifield at the second-base position.
So far, Lopez has put in the work in the off-season to prove that the Royals have made the right call with Lopez at second. First off, Lopez gained 18 pounds of good muscle weight this off-season in order to give him some more pop at the plate. And thankfully for Lopez and the Royals, that strength was evident in Cactus League play during Spring Training. Lopez posted a .360/.406/.640 slash with a 1.047 OPS and a home run and four RBI. Furthermore, he had two walks to three strikeouts in 28 plate appearances, which shows that Lopez’s contact skills and supreme batting eye are still sharp, and should transition to the regular season.
Ryan O’Hearn, 1B
The pressure was certainly on O’Hearn this Spring, especially after his disappointing campaign a year ago. O’Hearn struggled in 2019, posting a .195/.281/.369 slash with a .650 OPS over 370 plate appearances. Even though he did hit 14 home runs, the 26-year-old slugger struggled with strikeouts, as he struck out 99 times in 2019.
While O’Hearn had a vote of confidence from manager Mike Matheny, there was still skepticism that O’Hearn could hold off McBroom. While McBroom didn’t have the power upside of O’Hearn, he seemed to be a better candidate to hit for higher average, something O’Hearn has never really done at the Major or Minor League level.
Despite the high expectations this Spring, O’Hearn has exceeded them and solidified his spot as the Royals’ starting first baseman on Opening Day. O’Hearn smashed Cactus League pitching, posting a .343/.395/.857 slash with a 1.252 OPS, five home runs and nine RBI. Without a doubt, O’Hearn made his case as the Royals’ Offensive MVP in the Cactus League, period.
It hasn’t been easy for the Royals to find an heir to Eric Hosmer, who left his mark in Kansas City after leaving for San Diego in the winter following the 2017 season. However, if O’Hearn continues to mash in 2020 like he did this Spring, then it’s possible O’Hearn could bring some needed stability at the first-base position, not just this year, but the next couple of years as well.
Salvador Perez, C
Salvy didn’t have the most eye-popping Spring. He only posted a .250/.342/.375 slash with a .717 OPS over 38 plate appearances this Spring. However, while Salvy didn’t have the gaudy numbers of a McBroom, O’Hearn, or even Starling, neither of those players missed the entire 2019 season due to injury. Thus, the fact that Salvy was able to put a stat line close to what he did in 2018 (.713 OPS in 2018) is a good sign that Salvy hasn’t missed a beat after not seeing Major League pitching for over a year.
While Salvy is not in danger of losing his position (while Cam Gallagher had a good Spring, he is solely backup material), he needs to show that he has some long term value for this Royals organization. Salvy has a history of struggling with strikeouts and failing to take walks, as he has a career BB/K ratio of 0.22, and has failed to be over 0.18 since 2014 (which was 0.26). While Salvy certainly has power to make up for his batting eye deficiencies (he hasn’t hit fewer than 21 home runs since 2015), his questionable plate approach make his long-term future in Kansas City a question, especially since his contract will expire after the 2021 season.
This will be a big season for Salvy and the Royals. First, the club missed his production at the plate, and his leadership in the clubhouse. It was obvious at Royals FanFest that Salvy is the heart and soul of this club, and the players feed off his energy. If the Royals want to surpass the 63-65 win mark that most experts expect out of them, then Salvy will not only have to continue his clubhouse leadership, but also production at the plate.
So far, Salvy has showed that he could replicated his 2018 numbers to this Spring. Now, he just needs to do it in the regular season…though some improvement on those numbers wouldn’t hurt this club either.