Three takeaways from the Royals first set of roster moves this Spring

It’s been a fun Spring Training, as the Royals entered the scheduled off day with a 9-3 record, fresh off a 4-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers. Per usual, Salvador Perez went yard against the Brew Crew, further showing that his trademark power could continue to be a valuable commodity in 2021:

Furthermore, after the game that evening, the Royals made this announcement on their Twitter, which signified the first set of roster moves made this Spring:

As expected with roster moves at this time of the year, most of the transactions announced were expected, especially with so many of the players having played in the lower levels of the Minor Leagues in 2019. However, there were a few minor surprises or interesting stories that emerged from the news.

Thus, let’s take a look at three takeaways Royals fans may have after the roster takes one step closer to being finalized in preparation for Opening Day at Kauffman Stadium on April 1st.

Edward Olivares’ move a minor surprise, but sensible

I am a big fan of Olivares on this blog, and I have made the notion before that he is capable of being a long-term option in the outfield in Kansas City. However, it seems like the Royals are looking to take a more conservative route with him, as he was one of four players on the 40-man roster optioned to Triple-A Omaha on Thursday evening.

(For those who may not know the difference between being “Optioned” and “Sent to Minor League Camp”: those who are on the 40-man have to be “optioned” in order to be sent to the Minor League. Each player gets three minor league options once they make the 40-man roster. More can be learned about how Minor League options work here. However, for those just sent to “camp”, since they are not on the 40-man, but still under club control, they can just be sent to Minor League camp. That being said, since the Minor League season hasn’t started, it is likely that Olivares, Scott Blewett, Ronald Bolanos, and Meibrys Viloria will be in camp with the other Minor League players.)

While the news may be disappointing for Olivares and fans of the recently-acquired former Padres outfielder, the move makes a lot of sense. Olivares was swinging a decent stick, as he was posting a .974 OPS, had hit a home run, and only struck out once in 13 plate appearances in Cactus League play. However, his defense left a lot to be desired, as he made two errors in nine games, and didn’t seem to be a natural fit in center field (especially when paired with Jorge Soler in right…oof). Olivares has displayed potential to be a solid outfielder defensively with his athleticism and speed. Unfortunately, his instincts still need work, as he rated in the bottom 11th percentile in outs above average, according to Baseball Savant. While his route-running rated as above average a year ago, his reaction, jump, and burst rates all rated as below average, which heavily contributed to his one out BELOW average rating a year ago overall (including a two outs below average rating in center field).

Olivares was going to face stiff competition this Spring with the acquisitions of Michael A. Taylor, Andrew Benintendi, and most recently, Jarrod Dyson, who seems to be a shoe-in to fill in as the Royals’ fourth outfielder, especially after Dyson signed a Major League deal. However, probably playing every day in Omaha is a better plan for Olivares, who hadn’t played above Double-A before last year, and could use some work in developing his defensive skills, especially if he wants to have a shot to play center field in 2022. While the option may seem rash to Royals fans, it actually gives Olivares more time and reps to work specifically on his defense with Royals player development, which should be a priority this Spring. I think the Royals are going to play things slow with Olivares and Nick Heath and let them get a lot of innings together in the outfield in Omaha in 2021. While Heath made the first round of cuts, I don’t imagine him to last much longer, either.

Viloria gets another option…but his future is still shaky

The most surprising story honestly of the news announcement was the option of Meibrys Viloria to Triple-A Omaha. Viloria hadn’t gotten much time this Spring, as he only had two plate appearances in Cactus League play. The Colombian-born catcher also seemed to fall in the depth chart behind not only backup Cam Gallagher, but recent 40-man addition Sebastian Rivero, who has been making serious gains this Spring not just with his glove, but his bat as well:

Therefore, the decision to option Viloria seems sensible on the surface…if he had options.

Going into this year, due to weird injury situations over the past three years, VIloria had exhausted all his Minor League options, and seemed to be a candidate to be designated for assignment. Even though Viloria has relatively underwhelmed at the MLB level behind the plate (he has a career -1.1 WAR, according to Fangraphs), he just turned 24-years-old, and his arm and power potential have reminded some of a young, but rawer, Salvy. Thus, if Viloria did hit waivers, it seemed unlikely that he would go unclaimed, a dilemma Mike Gillespie of Kings of Kauffman talked about:

And yet, if you double-check the Royals’ Roster Resource depth chart, Viloria somehow has another Minor League option, so the Royals did not have to DFA him as expected.

How did this happen?

Well, I checked out the MLB site, and this is what it said about Minor League options and the “exception” for a fourth year:

Players typically have three option years, but those who have accrued less than five full seasons (including both the Major and Minors) are eligible for a fourth if their three options have been exhausted already. For the purposes of this rule, spending at least 90 days on an active Major League or Minor League roster during a given season counts as one full season. Players also earn a full season if they spend at least 30 days on an active Major League or Minor League roster AND their active-roster and injured-list time amounts to at least 90 days in a given season.

“Minor League Options”;

Viloria has only played in 67 games, and 1.020 years of service time (translated as one year and 20 days). My guess is that his service time from 2020 didn’t meet the threshold for a “full service” year, and thus, the Royals decided to “exercise” that fourth year, since he is still a young catcher, and catching depth is always welcomed in a MLB organization. It is surprising that the Royals didn’t point this out explicitly in their announcement though, like they did with Zimmer a year ago.

Nonetheless, time is ticking for Viloria in KC, especially with Rivero suddenly looking like the third-best catcher in the Royals organization. Furthermore, MJ Melendez will need to be added to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, and though Melendez has disappointed thus far, he could recaptures his once lofty prospect status with a solid 2021 campaign, whether it is in Double or High-A. If he does, then Viloria will need to show something in Omaha to convince the Royals that he is worth keeping around for at least another season, when he will be out of Minor League options for sure.

As of now, it is hard to see that happening, unfortunately.

Could the “Two Jakes” challenge Lovelady for the left-handed reliever role on Opening Day?

When I am talking about the “Two Jakes”, I am talking about Jake Brentz and Jake Kalish, not the ill-fated sequel to “Chinatown” that was directed by Jack Nicholson, as evidenced below:

Bad 1990 movie reference aside, both Brentz and Kalish have been making noise this Spring, and still remain after the first series of cuts. Brentz has been a bit wild, as he has given up four hits and three walks in 3.1 IP in Cactus League play. However, he has struck out five batters this Spring, and has been showing eye-popping velocity, as evidenced below:

Brentz was acquired by the Royals from the Pirates in 2019, and has always demonstrated flashy stuff, but a lack of control and command. Over his career, according to Baseball Reference, he has a K/9 of 9.7 over 254.1 IP in seven seasons in the Minors, but he also has a BB/9 of 6.5 and K/BB ratio of 1.49, both sub-par numbers. That being said, the fact the Royals are keeping him around shows that he is intriguing the Royals coaching staff and management, and if he can harness the control a little bit more this Spring, it’s not out of the question to think that he could steal a bullpen spot by Opening Day.

Kalish has less impressive strikeout stuff, but he has a 3.38 ERA and 0.75 WHIP in 2.2 IP this Spring. Furthermore, Kalish has more upper level experience than Brentz, as Kalish has pitched over 223 innings at the Triple-A level, and has sported a 4.24 ERA as well, according to Baseball Reference. Brentz has only pitched 37.1 innings in Triple-A, and that came in the Pirates and Mariners organizations. Furthermore, Brentz has posted a 6.03 ERA over his Triple-A stints, which shows that he is less of a polished product than Kalish, even though he may have more upside (Brentz is 26 while Kalish in 29). Lastly, Kalish has faced better competition this Spring, as Kalish’s opponent quality score is 7.7 (around Triple-A level), while Brentz’s quality score is 5.0 (which is roughly High-A).

Kalish has yet to make his MLB debut even though he will be turning 30 in July, and one has to wonder if the Royals will give him a shot this season after so much time in the Minors. Kalish’s stuff may not warrant him a serious look, but he could be the kind of “cup of coffee” reliever who could fill in for a month or two if injury besets an arm currently in the Royals bullpen. Additionally, Gabe Speier not making the cut, after pitching the last two seasons in Kansas City, only opens the door more for Kalish to make his MLB debut.

Nonetheless, the “Two Jakes” will have to really continue to develop this Spring if they want to overtake Lovelady, who is already on the 40-man, has big league experience, and seems to be doing well so far in Cactus League play. Lovelady has pitched 3.2 innings in five appearances, and has walked one and given up two hits while striking out four. His ERA is currently 0.00, and his WHIP is also low at 0.82. Lovelady’s opponent quality score is 6.7, which is roughly around Double-A competition, according to Baseball Reference. Thus, while Lovelady hasn’t faced as tough as competition as Kalish, it’s not that far off, and Lovelady has been much more dominant than either Kalish or Brentz when it comes to displaying stuff AND command.

Lovelady has always flashed potential, but just hasn’t put it all together at the MLB level. Honestly though, he hasn’t gotten many opportunities to do so either, as he only made one appearance in 2020. Many feel that Lovelady can handle the rule changes implemented last year and be more than a LOOGY, as he can generate groundballs on frequent occasion (career 52.1 percent GB rate, according to Savant), and he sports decent velocity and spin on his fastball, as he ranked in the 60th and 64th percentile in those categories, respectively, according to Savant.

The 25-year-old lefty from Kennesaw State will see much stiffer competition this Spring, and it will be interesting to see if his performances will continue to be strong, or if he will regress against better hitters. If it is the latter, that could open up an opportunity for Kalish or Brentz to steal a Royals bullpen spot from Lovelady, like Randy Rosario last year, or Speier two years ago.

Photo Credit: Fox Sports Go

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