“Cactus Royals” Preview: Outfielders

This is part 3 of the “Cactus Royals”, my Royals Spring Training roster preview. Here are previous posts in this series:

For these purposes, I also included Jorge Soler in this post. Even though he will b the Royals’ primary DH, he does play some outfield every now and then, and thus he belongs in this position group. Now let’s take a look at the four tiers of Royals outfielders invited for Spring Training, and what Royals fans should expect from each player in each tier this Spring in Surprise.

(All projections metrics come from PECOTA projections from Baseball Prospectus and Dan Szymboski’s ZiPS projections, posted on Fangraphs.)


Stars/Starters

Whit Merrifield

  • 105 DRC+, 0.1 FRAA, 2.3 WARP (PECOTA projections).
  • .323 wOBA, 5.0 Fld, 3.0 WAR (ZiPS projections).

Jorge Soler

  • 121 DRC+, 0.0 FRAA, 2.6 WARP (PECOTA projections).
  • .350 wOBA, 0.0 Fld, 1.6 WAR (ZiPS projections).

Andrew Benintendi

  • 101 DRC+, -1.9 FRAA, 1.5 WARP (PECOTA projections).
  • .326 wOBA, 2.0 Fld, 1.5 WAR (ZiPS projections).

Michael A. Taylor

  • 74 DRC+, 2.6 FRAA, 0.4 WARP (PECOTA projections).
  • .288 wOBA, 4.0 Fld, 0.7 WAR (ZiPS projections).

The outlook of the Royals outfield looks pretty encouraging, which is something Royals fans haven’t really been able to say since Lorenzo Cain left in free agency after the 2017 season. Whit and Benintendi are two players who legitimately could be All Stars, and Jorge Soler could put himself in the discussion, though as a designated hitter candidate, not an outfielder.

While Benintendi did cost the Royals Statcast-darling Franchy Cordero, and a young, high upside Khalil Lee, he is a suitable heir to Alex Gordon in left, and really is just entering the prime of his career at 26 years old. If Benintendi can be his 2018 self again, it’s possible that the Royals could have two of the better corner outfielders in the AL Central, which is not an easy thing to say considering the White Sox, Twins, and even Indians are also in the division.

Soler and Whit saw a bit of regression from 2019 to 2020, though for different reasons. Soler struggled with an oblique injury most of the year, and it really seemed to affect him down the stretch If Soler is fully healthy, it would not be surprising to see him bounce back to his 2019 self, as his advanced metrics from 2020 demonstrated that he was probably better than his surface-level numbers (like batting average) indicate.

As for Whit, he hit a slump in late August and early September and it definitely affected his overall line. That being said, he still put up an impressive .282/.325/.440 line, which also included nine home runs, which was the second-highest mark on the team. Whit has always been known for his ability hit for average (career .295 average) as well as swipe bases (he has stolen 119 total bases since debuting in 2016). However, the home run stroke was nice to see, as his 11.3 percent HR/FB rate was a career high and the first time it has ever been in double digits. Thus, if healthy, it is certainly possible that Whit could be a 20-20 threat in 2021.

The only question mark in the outfield is Taylor, who offers a lot of defensive upside, but is less of a sure thing with the bat. Taylor has showed some interesting power potential for a “speed guy” as he has generated a career exit velocity of 88.4 on batted balls, and last season, he posted a barrel rate of 13.8 percent, a career high, according to Statcast data. To compare, Whit only has a career exit velocity of 87.2 and has never posted a barrel rate above 5.1 percent, which only demonstrates Taylor’s power tool for a center fielder.

However, Taylor has struggled with plate discipline and making consistent contact, as he has a career strikeout rate of 31.4 percent, and a career contact rate of 69.4 percent. Thus, it’s not surprising that Taylor has only posted a wRC+ over 100 only once (104 in 2017) since debuting with the Nationals in 2014. While the Royals were able to acquire Taylor on a cheap, one-year deal, the Royals will need him to outperform his contract if they want to make a legitimate move up the standings in the AL Central. Last year, Maikel Franco was able to be a good value on a similar deal. In 2019 though, Billy Hamilton failed to live up to even modest expectations.

It will be interesting to see where Taylor falls in comparison to those two players by the end of 2021.


Bench possibilities

Edward Olivares

  • 86 DRC+, 4.7 FRAA, 0.7 WARP (PECOTA Projections).
  • .282 wOBA, 0.0 Fld, -0.8 WAR (ZiPS Projections).

Nick Heath

  • 62 DRC+, 0.2 FRAA, 0.0 WARP (PECOTA Projections).
  • .246 wOBA, 4.0 Fld, -0.5 WAR (ZiPS Projections).

While the Royals’ starting outfield seems pretty set, even with Spring Camp just having begun, it is possible that the Royals may need some help off the bench. If they are looking for reserve help, it may be essential for the club to have a late inning defensive replacement or baserunning option who can steal or garner extra bases in crucial spots much like Jarrod Dyson, Terrance Gore, or even Paulo Orlando. Both Olivares and Heath could satisfy that role.

Olivares may be the more well-rounded option, as he thrived in a move to the Midwest from San Diego. While his overall stat line isn’t great, he did post a .274/.292/.419 slash and 87 wRC+ in 18 games and 65 plate appearances with the Royals (he only posted a 40 wRC+ in 36 plate appearances with the Padres). That being said, Olivares is still a bit unpolished in all areas of the game, which probably is due to him not playing above Double-A yet in his career. His defense is also a bit polarizing, as PECOTA seems to be more optimistic about his glove than ZiPS. Thus, while Olivares showed last year that he could at least be replacement level or slightly above at the MLB level, he may benefit from some seasoning in Triple-A Omaha to begin 2021 in order to polish up his plate discipline as well as defense and baserunning.

Heath on the other hand probably has less upside than Olivares, but he already brings a pretty distinguishable tool: baserunning. Heath stole 60 bags in 2019 between Northwest Arkansas and Omaha, and 39 bases in 2018 between Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas. Hence, if the Royals really need that baserunning threat in that Dyson/Gore mold, Heath may be the best option currently competing for a roster spot in Surprise.

That being said, Heath has struggled with strikeouts over his career, as he has had a strikeout rate over 25 percent at every level he’s played at since 2018. Even in his brief stint in 2020, he posted a K rate of 33.3 percent in 18 plate appearances, which is not a good sign for a guy who relies so heavily on his base running as a player. That being said, Heath can draw a walk (plus 10 walk rate at every level since 2018), and he has an infectious personality which would be welcomed not just by the Royals clubhouse, but by Royals fans who will returning to Kauffman Stadium this season.


Bubble guys

Bubba Starling

  • 51 DRC+, -1.6 WARP (PECOTA Projections)
  • .249 wOBA, -2.0 Fld, -1.1 WAR (ZiPS Projections)

Kyle Isbel

  • 62 DRC+, -0.2 WARP (PECOTA Projections)
  • .272 wOBA, 1.2 Fld, -0.2 WAR (ZiPS Projections)

Starling and Isbel are both at different points in their Royals careers. Starling is trying to earn a roster spot, as this Spring Training may be his last one with the organization unless something dramatic happens for him in 2021. Starling did have a solid Spring and Summer Camp, but unfortunately, Starling’s questionable plate discipline once again plagued him offensively in 2020. In 64 plate appearances, Starling posted a 42.2 strikeout percentage and a 21 wRC+. While he is a local guy whom the KC Metro is rooting for, it probably is time for Royals fans (and Starling himself) to move on at this point.

If the sun is setting on Starling’s career in Kansas City, the sun may be rising for Isbel. Isbel made his debut last Spring and impressed not only in Spring Training and Summer Camp, but at the Alternate Site at T-Bones (now Monarchs) Stadium. Isbel is probably a long shot to make the active roster, but a solid Cactus League campaign could boost his candidacy to be added to the 40-man roster later in the season. There isn’t a rush for Isbel to be called up anytime soon, especially with Benintendi and Whit manning left and right, respectively. That being said, Isbel should be one to watch out for not just this Spring, but in the Minor Leagues as well. He could be a candidate for a starting outfield job in 2022 if he has a solid 2021.


Strictly Minor League material

Seuly Matias, Anderson Miller, Erick Pena

I hadn’t heard that much about Anderson Miller before, so his invitation was a surprise (though he has been at Spring Training before). That being said, he most likely will be slotted as a starting outfielder in Omaha, so adding him to the Spring Training roster made sense to give him some reps for the upcoming Triple-A season. Miller played three straight seasons in Double-A from 2017-2019, and showed some promise in 2018, as he posted a slash of .255/.308/.414 and hit 13 home runs in 470 plate appearances with the Naturals. Furthermore, he also hit a home run against the Dodgers in Spring Training that year, as evidenced from the video below:

Unfortunately, 2019 was rough, as he only played in 86 games, and saw his wRC+ go from 94 to 78 from 2018 to 2019, despite it being his third stint in the Texas League. Miller is a long shot to make the Royals in 2021, or be in the organization for much longer, but if he has a solid Spring campaign, he could parlay that into a solid campaign in Omaha, which may make him an emergency option in 2021 if injury besets the Royals outfield.

Matias and Pena on the other hand are two of the more anticipated Latin American prospects who will undoubtedly be in the Minors. Matias has struggled with injury the past couple of years, but he spent some valuable time at the Alternate Site last summer, and parlayed that into a solid stint in the Dominican Winter League. He posted a 1.189 OPS in 18 plate appearances with Gigantes de Cibao, and also launched two home runs, including this one below:

Matias’ stock has really rebounded over the past year after a rough 2019 campaign in Wilmington. Matias likely will return to High-A, but the Quad Cities (the Royals’ new High-A affiliate) will most likely be a better hitting environment than the cold weather of Delaware. Even though 2021 will be mostly about development for Matias, it will be fun to see what he may be able to do in Cactus League play this Spring, especially at the plate.

The last outfielder in camp, Erick Pena, probably won’t see much time in Cactus League play, but his invitation to camp is a nice surprise (he and Nick Loftin weren’t initially announced). Pena has yet to play a professional game yet, but he may be the most high-profile position prospect in the Royals system on tools and upside alone (other than Bobby Witt, Jr. of course). Pena was able to get some work at Kauffman for Fall camp as well as in the instructional league in Arizona shortly after, which was much needed after a lost Minor League season. Furthermore, the recently-turned 18-year-old is already hitting bombs in live BP sessions, as evidenced below:

Who knows how long Pena will be up with the Royals roster this Spring (he most likely will be one of the first ones sent down when Minor League camp begins). However, let’s hope Royals fans get to see more clips of Pena doing “baseball” things with the big league Royals before he eventually transitions off the Cactus League roster.

It will only boost the teenager’s confidence as he prepares for his first full professional season.

(Photo Credit: 2019 Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox)

One thought on ““Cactus Royals” Preview: Outfielders

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s