Today, the Royals held their first intrasquad scrimmage at Kauffman Stadium, and it felt like the Royals beat writers (the Athletic’s Alec Lewis, MLB.com’s Jeff Flanagan, and the KC Star’s Lynn Worthy) were covering it like it was Game 1 of the World Series. After nearly four months of inactivity, live baseball was finally back at Kauffman Stadium, even if it was in an abbreviated, and controlled, format.
As expected, the intrasquad scrimmage, and the start of camp in general, have produced some hopeful stories for 2020. But despite stories that pump up a handful of Kansas City sports fans who are longing for the start of baseball again after such a long hiatus, the Royals were hit with devastating news COVID news again, as projected Opening Day starter Brad Keller and first baseman Ryan O’Hearn both tested positive for COVID.
The news comes just a few days after Royals catcher and All-Star Salvador Perez tested positive for COVID on July 4th. Thus, the three positive COVID cases to key players on the Royals roster should continue to give Royals fans some concern about the upcoming season, even though there are some promising signs on the field not just for 2020, but even beyond.
Two players who have stood out so far in camp have been shortstop Adalberto Mondesi and second baseman Nicky Lopez, as they have showed some progress with the bat without losing a beat in the field. Both Mondesi and Lopez ripped doubles during the intrasquad scrimmage, with Mondi doing so while wearing a mask, which further shows all “mask refraining” citizens how foolish they look for refusing to wear a mask when they buy groceries from Price Chopper or Hyvee.
The return of Mondesi to form is an encouraging sign for Royals fans who saw Mondesi struggle through injury in 2019, as he only played in 102 games due to nagging shoulder injuries that eventually required surgery by the end of 2019. Mondesi had a breakout in the second half of 2018 after struggling to break into the Royals lineup consistently in 2016 and 2017. And though his hitting regressed a bit in 2019 from 2018 (his OPS dropped from .815 to .704, respectively), he still held his own for a shortstop, and he made his name as one of the best base thieves in the American League, as he stole 43 bases in 50 attempts. Now that Mondesi is fully healthy and recovered, not only will he continue to be a speed demon on the basepaths, but it also looks like he could be the kind of 15-20 home run threat (over a 162 game season of course) that could perhaps make him the Javier Baez of the American League, or something even greater.
As for Lopez, as evidenced by the video above, it seems like his weight regiment has paid some dividends this off-season. Nicky not only looks physically stronger, but his swing looks more powerful as well, as he put a good stroke on it, and was able to leg out a double during the scrimmage. Lopez and Mondesi defensively are the Royals’ best options up the middle, but Lopez’s questionable bat in 2019 (though he did finish strong) made Royals fans wonder if it was worth it to move Whit to center field full time this season, especially with options like Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips on the bench and both out of options. So far, the early returns on Lopez have been good, for even before COVID he was leading infielders in Spring Training with 10 or more appearances in OPS (1.047). This clip above, though an obvious small sample, should give comfort to Royals fans that Lopez can build on his .360/.407/.640 slash in 28 plate appearances in Cactus League play. And if he does build on that Spring and Summer Camp, then it’s possible that the Royals could have one of the most dynamic middle infield combos in the AL Central.
But while Lopez and Mondesi have added excitement up the middle, the young guns have garnered good reports early. Bobby Witt, Jr., who played in the Arizona Rookie League a year ago, got some play at third next to Mondesi as well as a single in the scrimmage, and has earned rave reviews from first year manager Mike Matheny for his performance so far in camp.
In addition to Witt, outfielder Seuly Matias has once again turned some heads with his power, which is a much needed boost of confidence for him after such a tough 2019 in Wilmington where he dealt with multiple injuries and failed to produce at the plate. However, early on this camp, it’s been hard to tell the difference at times during batting practice between reigning AL HR champ Jorge Soler and Matias, especially considering how hard Matias has been hitting the ball as of late.
While Matias will be in camp primarily for development, it’s good to see Matias make some gains in Major League camp and hopefully he will get the mentoring he needs to have a bounce back campaign once Minor League Baseball returns in 2021. Also, infielder Jeison Guzman, who was recently added to the 40-man roster this past winter despite having not played above Low-A Lexington in his career, has also impressed with his glove and his bat, with the latter being a good sign since his hitting is the most important tool of his in need of development this camp.
In many ways, it’s incredibly excited to hear about all these good stories so far. It’s awesome to see Greg Holland make his case to earn his spot on the 40-man roster in order to resurrect his MLB career in the city where it was made initially. And it’s great to see the young Royals show promising signs early on in this camp, which gives hope that even though they may not play any games on the 60-game slate, they will get the development they need to succeed in 2021 with whatever affiliate they play with.
However, it’s hard to remain too optimistic when the Royals not only lose their Opening Day starter, but perhaps their starting first baseman for an indeterminate amount of time due to the COVID pandemic, in which both players showed little to no symptoms before their test.
As stated in my last post, Salvy would be just the tip of the iceberg of this COVID crisis, and already we’re starting to see what challenges the Royals and other MLB teams will face. Granted, it’s still early, so there’s still a likely chance that all three will be ready by Opening Day in Cleveland on July 24th. That being said, what happens if players get it during the season? What happens if a key player like Soler or Whit or Gordo is sidelined for up to 15 days due to the virus? In a season where every game counts just a little more in comparison to previous seasons, the Royals have little to no room for error or bad luck. If they want to pull that “surprise” run in 2020 due to the shortened season, they will need avoid the COVID “bug” as a team, and unfortunately, they are not necessarily off to a good start.
It will be interesting to see what procedures and practices the Royals organization will try to incorporate in the wake of these three positive tests, especially considering all the issues going on in Eastern Kansas and Western Missouri. The Royals have certainly been talking early on that they like their chances to surprise the AL Central and make a run, and the odds certainly give them a better shot over a 60-game slate than a 162-one. But despite the flashes of promise so far early on this camp as a squad, Keller and O’Hearn, both guys who were looking to take the next step in 2020, are cautionary tales that Royals fans need to get used to hearing during this odd and uncanny season.
They most likely won’t be the last Royals players to test positive for COVID in the coming weeks and months.
All it takes is one or two positive tests to not just derail a Royals season record-wise, but perhaps a baseball season overall. One case can turn to five or 10 just like that, and it’s possible that a 60-game season with the promise of fans can be half of that or even fewer if cases are not contained, and proper safety is not practiced.
I hate thinking like this about the upcoming Royals season. I tend to be an optimistic guy who loves Royals baseball more than anything. I’ve waited for this season to happen for what seems like forever, and seeing the guys hit and field and just don the Royals blue and white makes me giddy.
That being said, no sport or activity should ever outweigh public health. Even if athletes can recover quickly due to their condition, they shouldn’t have to deal with that guilt and weight of putting their families at risk either. It’s amazing how the “make them play no matter what” supporters (much akin to the “make students go to school no matter what” supporters) ignore this fact.
Let’s hope things get better soon and the Royals, and other MLB teams, can find the right methods to make sure this COVID can be in control, not just for the sake of the baseball season, but for the sake of everyone in baseball’s health as well.