It’s snowing and cold as hell here in Kansas City and across most of the nation, honestly. However, a silver lining to all of this is that pitcher and catchers report on Thursday, and the Royals recently released their updated Cactus League schedule on their official Twitter:
Thus, even though games haven’t begun yet, it isn’t too early to talk about potential Royals position battles we may see this Spring in Surprise. So, in order to help Royals fans get over this cold and miserable weather, let’s take a look at five position battles Royals fans should be paying attention to once Spring camp begins in Arizona (all Royals players will report on February 22nd).
1. Second Base
This may be the most important position to watch this Spring. Nicky Lopez had a solid Spring Training last year before COVID shut things down, as he posted a .360/.407/.640 slash in 28 plate appearances in Cactus League play. Thus, it seemed like Lopez was well on his way to a breakout campaign in 2020 as the Royals’ everyday second baseman. While his glove was as good as advertised, he continued to struggle in his second season in the Major Leagues at the plate, as he put up a slash of .201/.286/.266 in 192 plate appearances.
As of now, the Royals haven’t made any notion that the club won’t start out with Lopez at second. That being said, he will have some competition for the job. Dayton Moore acquired utility infielder Hanser Alberto on a Minor League deal, who last played with the Orioles in 2019 and 2020. Alberto is a lefty-masher, which makes a platoon possible at second for 2021 (as I suggested on this blog earlier this month). However, though Alberto has hit for higher average than Lopez recently, his exit velocity and hard hits rates are even worse than the former Creighton Blue Jay, which should limit Alberto as a utility infield or a platoon option rather than a full-time one.
Another interesting possibility could be moving back Whit Merrifield back to second, though another move would have to happen for that to be a possibility. I toyed with the idea of the Royals bringing back Maikel Franco, which probably would move Whit back to second, and Hunter Dozier to right field (which may be a better fit for Doz). That being said, the likelihood of Moore bringing back Franco, or honestly adding any other position players in the wake of the Andrew Benintendi deal seems unlikely, which should in turn keep Whit in right field…for now.
2. Center Field
According to the Royals projected Depth Chart on Roster Resource, former Washington National Michael A. Taylor is projected to be the Royals’ starting center fielder. Taylor has had his share of struggles at the plate over the course of his Major League career, but he is an athletic option who should boost the outfield defense of the Royals at the very least. Furthermore, he has demonstrated some power potential over the past couple of years, and it is possible that he could see a breakout at the plate in his new surroundings in Kansas City, should everything come together.
Of course, Taylor is still a risky commodity, as he posted a .196/.253/.424 slash in 99 plate appearances in DC last year, and he’ll also be 30-years-old in 2021, which isn’t exactly young. The Royals did lose Khalil Lee in the Benintendi trade, who could have been a possible center field option if Taylor did not perform. However, even though the Royals no longer have Lee, they still have intriguing options in Edward Olivares and Nick Heath, who both, at the very least, possess some interesting speed and defense skill sets (though their hitting has been a bit inconsistent).
Another interesting player to watch this Spring will be Kyle Isbel, whose pathway to the KC outfield looks even more open in the wake of Lee and Franchy Cordero being traded. Isbel had a great summer camp and tenure at the Alternate Site last year, and in a post I wrote earlier this month, I argued that he may be closer to the Majors than many may think. If Isbel has a good Spring Training (he posted an .853 OPS in 30 plate appearances last Spring), he could be a potential call up option in July.
3. Third Base
Right now, Dozier is the guy at third, and it makes the most sense since the Royals don’t necessarily have an immediate option at third base, and Dozier manned the position primarily in 2019. However, Dozier is not really known for his defense at the hot corner, and it may make more sense long term to move him to a corner outfielder spot (though he didn’t necessarily impress there either, especially last season).
A couple of interesting third basemen to watch this Spring could be Kelvin Gutierrez and Emmanuel Rivera, who both are coming off impressive Winter League campaigns. Gutierrez was arguably the best hitter for the Gigantes del Cibao, who made the LIDOM championship series, but lost to Aguilas. The 25-year-old Royals corner infield prospect posted a slash of .396/.492/.604 with two home runs and five doubles in 63 plate appearances this Winter, which was promising to see, especially considering his injury issues the past couple of seasons.
Additionally, Gutierrez wasn’t the lone Royals third-base prospect to have a solid Winter League campaign, as Rivera also put up impressive numbers with Mayaguez of the Puerto Rican Winter League. Rivera posted a .292/.342/.523 slash and had three home runs in 73 plate appearances, which probably earned him an invite to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee. Rivera seems more of a long shot to challenge Dozier, as he only hit .258 in 131 games in Northwest Arkansas in 2019. That being said, Rivera could be a potential utility infielder in 2022, if he can build on this Winter League breakout.
It will be Dozier’s job to lose this Spring, and even if he doesn’t light it up in Cactus League play, it’s still difficult to imagine him NOT being the Royals’ Opening Day third baseman. However, Gutierrez and Rivera could make dark horse cases, especially if they can transition their solid Winter stints to Cactus League play.
Greg Holland finished 2020 as the Royals closer after the Royals traded Trevor Rosenthal to San Diego around the Trade Deadline. Holland did post impressive metrics in his return to Kansas City, as he posed a 1.91 ERA and generated six saves in 28.1 IP last year. However, Holland’s projections aren’t as rosy for 2021, as Fangraphs projects a 4.48 ERA and 16 saves in 58 innings of work. It’s perfectly serviceable numbers, but not necessarily the kind of “closer numbers” the Royals need if they indeed want to make a run in the AL Central, as hoped.
Furthermore, Holland is only on a one-year deal, and at 35-years-old, it is likely that he will not be a long-term option in the ninth inning after 2021. Thus, it will be interesting to see if the Royals look to younger options to push Holland this Spring. Those options seem to be at this moment either Josh Staumont or Jesse Hahn, though Kyle Zimmer and Scott Barlow could also be in the mix as well.
Staumont seems to be the sexiest option of the bunch as he has a fastball that hits 100-plus with regularity, and he had a strong 2020 season with the Royals after a mixed 2019. Staumont posted a 2.45 ERA and struck out 37 in 25.2 IP, but he also walked 16, which was the highest number for any Royals reliever who pitched 20 or more innings in 2020. Thus, his control will be something to watch for this Spring as well as early in the season. If his control issues get out of hand in 2021, it would not be surprising to see Hahn perhaps get in the closer’s mix, especially after a lights-out season where Hahn posted a 0.52 ERA and struck out 19 batters in 17.1 IP and only allowed four total hits as well (though one has to wonder how Hahn would fare over a larger sample).
5. The fifth or “sixth” rotation spot
Moore understands the necessity of pitching depth in an organization, and that was a key reason why he drafted Asa Lacy at No. 4 in the Royals draft even though highly-heralded infielder Austin Martin was surprisingly still available in the 2020 Draft. And thus, even though the Royals return everyone from their rotation in 2020, it would not be surprising to see Moore and manager Mike Matheny experiment and tinker a bit this Spring in order to utilize their organizational starting pitcher depth.
As of now, the projected Royals rotation, in no particular order, consists of Danny Duffy, Brad Keller, Brady Singer, Mike Minor, and Kris Bubic. It’s safe to say that Minor and Keller will be pillars of the rotation in 2021. In addition, even though the Royals will monitor them closely, especially after a weird COVID-affected debut, it is also likely that the Royals will continue to lean on Singer and Bubic as well. However, how the Royals handle Duffy will be interesting, especially since he will be entering the final year of the extension he signed prior to 2017.
Duffy in 2020 had a decent, but not great campaign. He made 11 starts and posted a 4.95 ERA in 56.1 IP. As typical of a Duffy year, he showed proficiency pitching in the first few innings, especially when facing the batting order the first time through. However, he struggled with his effectiveness when facing a lineup a second or third time through, which ultimately led to inflated metrics in the later innings, as well as early pulls from Matheny. At the surface level, it seems like it would make sense for the Royals to push Duffy to the bullpen, especially with the lack of left-handed reliever options available on the 40-man roster (Richard Lovelady is really the only one up for serious consideration). That being said, it seems like Moore and Matheny are banking on Duffy and his experience to carry this Royals rotation for at least one more season.
However, Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar seem to be on the verge of making their MLB debuts in 2021, and they could expedite that process should they have strong Spring Training campaigns. Singer held his own in Spring Training, and it eventually led to him making a start in the Royals’ Opening Weekend series last year in Cleveland. Lynch and Kowar were ho-hum in limited work in Spring Training last year, as Lynch posted a 3.38 ERA in 2.2 IP (he struck out three and walked three batters), while Kowar posted a 5.40 ERA in 3.1 IP (he too also struck out and walked three batters). However, they both spent the entirety of last summer in the Alternate Site, and they also got valuable work in at the Instructional Camp in Kansas City this past fall. Thus, it is possible that Lynch and Kowar may be better prepared for Cactus League play in 2021, and could also see more opportunity as well.
Thus, if Lynch and Kowar do well, will they get a shot to unseat Duffy? And if the Royals are intent on keeping Duffy in the rotation (at least initially), will the Royals explore using one of them as a sixth starter? The concerns to preserve young promising arms after a weird 2020 season seems to be a priority for teams across the league, and adding Kowar or Lynch as a sixth starter could not only boost the rotation, but also put less strain on other young pitchers such as Singer and Bubic. In addition, Ervin Santana could also be in the mix for such a spot, especially if the velocity he showed this Winter in the Dominican carries over to Spring Training.
Of course, Lynch, Kowar, and Santana will have to impress in Cactus League play in order to justify such a move, as Moore and Matheny have tended to be traditional when it comes to rotation construction and utilization.
But you never know. If the Royals’ true intent is to compete for a Central crown, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Moore and Matheny try anything to get them over the hump.
(Photo Credit: 610 Sports KC/Twitter)