In this final part of the “Royalty Awards”, I take a look at which three players could have the most impact for the Royals in the 2022 season. While the Royals’ upcoming season won’t be “made” or “broken” by just one or two players, it is safe to say that the Royals will need some key performances if they want to have hope for a postseason run in either 2022 or beyond.
Before looking at the three “most key” players to the Royals’ chances next season, here are four Royals players who just missed the top three.
- Brady Singer: Singer struck out 131 batters in 128 innings pitched, the only Royals starter last year who had more strikeouts than innings pitched. While that is promising, he also gave up 146 hits, which equates to 10.2 hits per nine innings, the second-highest rate of Royals starting pitchers in 2021. Singer will need to work on a third pitch this offseason if he wants to avoid the bullpen in the long-term, but even if he does add a decent third offering, it is likely that Singer’s upside would be a No. 3 to No. 4 starter in 2022 and beyond.
- Adalberto Mondesi: Mondesi struggled down the stretch, as he posted a 41 wRC+ in the second half of the season (compared to a ridiculous 221 wRC+ in the first half, though that was only over 10 games). However, Mondesi still posted a decent line, despite his late-season struggles (91 wRC+ was his highest since 2018), and he stayed healthy, which could be considered a success in itself, especially considering Mondesi’s injury issues the past three seasons. Mondesi could be the “wild card” who puts the Royals over the top, especially if he’s able to play 110-130 games, which would be a career high for him at the MLB level. However, Mondesi lacks a “true” position as of now, especially after Nicky Lopez and Whit Merrifield’s stellar seasons defensively at shortstop and second base, respectively, and Bobby Witt, Jr. impending arrival to Kansas City in 2022.
- Hunter Dozier: After inking an extension in the offseason, Dozier’s 2021 was a disaster for the most part. He posted an 82 wRC+ and a -0.2 fWAR, according to Fangraphs. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time Dozier posted negative fWAR marks, as he did post a -0.8 fWAR in 2018 and a -0.1 fWAR in 2016, his rookie season. The Royals signed Dozier to an extension because they need his power production in the middle of the lineup, and he can offer some defensive flexibility, as he played third base, first base, and right field in 2021. However, Dozier only hit 16 home runs and posted an ISO of .179, and he really didn’t provide much value anywhere defensively with the exception of first base, which he only saw limited time at due to Carlos Santana manning the position in 2021. On the other hand, Dozier had a solid end to the season (141 wRC+ in September and 109 wRC+ in the second half), and with Jorge Soler gone, the DH spot could open up for Dozier, which could play for him if his bat can rebound in 2022.
- MJ Melendez: Melendez had an incredible year, as he hit 41 home runs and drove in 103 RBI across Double-A and Triple-A in 2021. At the plate, Melendez was a revelation, as he lowered his strikeout considerably from previous seasons, and posted career high BB/K ratios of 0.57 in Double-A and 0.82 in Triple-A. Going into 2021, Melendez was thought to be a defensive-first, backup catcher at the MLB level (which put him in the double-digit range in terms of Royals prospect rankings). However, Melendez may be the best catching prospect in baseball, and he could be the catcher the Royals need to help Salvy get more time off behind the plate, which could help Salvy’s bat in the long term. That being said, Salvy is coming off an incredible year, and doesn’t seem apt to stop catching anytime soon, so Melendez’s arrival in Kansas City may not come until midway in 2022 at the soonest.
With the honorable mentions out of the way, let’s take a look at the three most “key” Royals players for the upcoming season, and dive into why they will be so important to the Royals’ chances to be competitive.
Second Runner Up: Daniel Lynch, LHP
For the past couple of years, Lynch has been the Royals’ top pitching prospect, which says something considering the investment the Royals front office has made in the first-year player draft in the area of pitching since 2018. Lynch made his debut this year, and even though he got off to a rough start (which led to an initial demotion), he was more respectable in his second call-up, especially during the Summer months of the season.
In 14 innings in July, he posted a 1.93 ERA, and in 26.1 IP in August, he posted a 2.39 ERA, according to Fangraphs splits data. This also included him throwing eight shutout innings at the K against the Detroit Tigers in his return from Omaha on July 25th:
Unfortunately, things blew up for him in September/October, as he posted an 8.69 ERA in 19.2 IP. This caused his ERA numbers to inflate to 5.69 in 68 total innings of work in his Major League debut.
There is no question that Lynch has the stuff to be successful. Lynch averaged 93.9 MPH on his four-seam fastball, and he also has a great four-pitch mix, with a slider that generated a whiff rate of 41.8 percent, according to Baseball Savant. Unfortunately, Lynch was hit hard, and struggled with his command, which led to an uneven rookie season in Kansas City. Lynch gave up a H/9 rate of 10.6, which was tied for highest rate for Royals starting pitchers (Brad Keller also posted such a rate). While Lynch did have a high BABIP (.335), he needs to do a better job commanding pitches in the strike zone, as he had a similarly high BABIP in Triple-A Omaha (.390).
Here’s an example of Lynch failing to locate a four-seam fastball on a 1-2 count to Cleveland’s Amed Rosario, who rips a double down the first base line, which plates a Cleveland runner:
Lynch puts himself in a pitcher’s count in this at-bat against Rosario, but his inability to locate his four-seamer up enough and in the right spot (check out where Cam Gallagher is setting him up; Lynch misses his target badly) ends up hurting Lynch and the Royals.
Lynch still has No. 1 or No. 2 starter potential, though it is likely that he’s more in the latter camp than the former. That being said, Lynch needs to improve his command and also limit the walks in 2022. He posted a BB/9 of 4.1, which was tied for second-highest of Royals starters, and his K/BB ratio was 1.77, which was the lowest rate for Royals starting pitchers in 2021, according to Baseball-Reference.
If the Royals want to make a move in the AL Central standings next season, they will need a boost from their starting rotation, which ranked 24th in starting pitcher ERA in 2021.
A healthy and improved Lynch could help accomplish that goal. That being said, he will need to make some strides in control and command this offseason and Spring if he wants to make that a reality next year.
First Runner Up: Bobby Witt, Jr. SS/INF
There is no prospect in baseball more highly anticipated than Witt, who was named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year, an impressive honor considering the prospect class this season:
Witt absolutely demolished Double-A and Triple-A pitching this year, as he posted a 145 wRC+ with the Naturals in 61 games and 279 plate appearances and a 142 wRC+ in 62 games and 285 plate appearances with the Storm Chasers, according to Fangraphs. Witt also hit a combined 33 home runs and stole a combined 29 bases between Double and Triple-A in 2021, which demonstrates his power and speed combo that could make him a perennial All Star at the Major League level.
And if the numbers weren’t enough, Witt was dazzling Northwest Arkansas, Omaha, and even Royals fans with highlights such as this:
And while his play on the field has been quite stellar in his short career thus far, Witt also oozes “superstar” potential, which is much needed for a Royals fanbase that has been honestly starved for one since the conclusion of the 2017 season. Playing in Kansas City isn’t easy, especially considering the shadow George Brett has left on the franchise since his retirement after the 1993 season.
That being said, if the video below is any indication, Witt may finally be that player who gives Royals fans that perennial All Star who can put the Royals back on national radar among baseball fans again.
Who knows if Witt will be on the Opening Day roster, or if the Royals will nurse him along, and keep him in Triple-A for a short time longer before eventually clearing a roster spot for him (there is a logjam in the middle infield with Lopez, Whit, and Mondesi). Nonetheless, Witt will be a key player for the Royals if they want to improve upon their 74-88 record from 2021.
If I am the Royals front office, and I want to win in the AL Central next season, I am bringing up Witt to Kansas City sooner rather than later.
With “sooner” meaning him starting on Opening Day.
Most Key Player for 2022: Nick Pratto, 1B
While Witt has been getting most of the Royals prospect hype, Pratto may be the most important at this time. The problem with Witt’s arrival is that the Royals got solid production up the middle from Lopez and Whit. Thus, there isn’t a pressing need to throw Witt at his natural position of shortstop at this time, especially with Lopez most likely earning some kind of extension this Winter (he’ll be entering his first year of arbitration).
hence, with it likely that the Royals will put Witt in another position for the time being (third base seems likely), Pratto could have an opportunity to take his natural first base position if he continues to mash this Spring, like he did in Northwest Arkansas and Omaha a year ago:
For the year, Pratto hit 36 home runs and drove in 98 RBI in 124 games between Northwest Arkansas and Omaha, combined. Pratto posted a ridiculous 155 wRC+ in Northwest Arkansas, and a 156 wRC+ in Omaha, which is incredible considering that Pratto posted a 73 wRC+ in 124 games in High-A Wilmington back in 2019. Without a doubt, Pratto may be the Royals Player Development’s biggest success story, especially considering his outlook was looking pretty bleak just a couple of years ago.
Drafted out of high school back in 2017, Pratto just turned 23, meaning that he is a young prospect who will be hitting the Majors before his 24th birthday, a good sign for long-term value for this Royals organization. Even though they are slightly different players (I think Pratto has more power), Pratto could be the Royals’ most productive first baseman since Eric Hosmer, and maybe this time around, the Royals could perhaps keep Pratto in KC in the long-term, especially considering how well Pratto has responded to Royals Player Development over the past two years.
Furthermore, Pratto’s long-term value could also shorten the tenure of Carlos Santana, who was signed to a two-year deal with a club option for a third year last offseason. Santana started strong, but finished poorly in his first year in Kansas City. For the season, Santana posted an 83 wRC+ and -0.3 fWAR in 2021, according to Fangraphs (both career lows). His terrible performance after the All-Star break was a huge contributor to his down season overall, as he posted a 39 wRC+ in the second half, a considerable drop off from the 117 wRC+ he was posting before the All Star break.
The Royals may not get much in return, but the emergence of Pratto should make Santana expendable this offseason. There were rumors of a possible Santana trade at the Trade Deadline, but it seems like things fizzled quickly, which resulted in Santana staying a Royal for the remainder of the season, which backfired on the Royals:
While Santana didn’t get dealt at the Deadline, it is likely that Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo will be entertaining offers for the veteran first baseman, even if they may not get a decent return in the process. And the reason? Well, the need to play Dozier somewhere in the field where he won’t hurt the club (i.e. DH or first base), but also due to Pratto’s development in Double-A and Triple-A this past season.
Because honestly, Pratto doesn’t have anything to prove right now in Minor League ball.
And because of that status, it could result in multiple moves being made at the Major League level to help pave a spot for Pratto on Opening Day.
Now, Pratto will need to have a strong Spring Training to ensure these moves to happen. But Pratto not just being called up, but holding his own, will be key to the Royals playoff aspirations in 2022. If Pratto comes up and at least hits decently at the plate for the Royals (i.e. better than what Santana and Ryan O’Hearn did this past season), that could be a good sign for the Royals not just moving up in the standings in 2022, but perhaps building that position player core for the next few seasons, much like the core of Hosmer-Mike Moustakas-Lorenzo Cain-Salvy-Alcides Escobar was built from 2011-2013.
Pratto will make moves happen in the Royals organization, and more so than even Witt, mostly due to the need for more production at first base in 2022.
Let’s see if the Royals front office will begin that process this Winter, or if it will wait toward the end of Spring Training.
Photo Credit: Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images