Three Lingering Royals Roster Questions During the Lockout

According to Fangraphs’ Roster Resource Depth Chart, the Royals roster is currently at 40 after the signing of Taylor Clarke. Even though the Royals did non-tender Richard Lovelady, they did bring him back via a Minor League contract. Furthermore, though no official deals were finalized before the December 1st lockout, they did tender contracts to all arbitration-eligible players, as reported by MLB.com’s Royals beat writer Anne Rogers:

The Royals right now are sitting with a payroll of about $86 million, though Cot’s Contracts projects that the Royals could begin the 2022 season with a payroll of about $76.3 million, which would rank them 26th in baseball (somehow, it is not the lowest in the AL Central, as the Cleveland Guardians have a lower projection at $46.6 million). While the Royals still could certainly spend on some free agents once the lockout ends, it seems from early reports that the Royals are going to be a lot more conservative on the “hot stove” this offseason in comparison to last Winter, when they inked Michael A. Taylor, Mike Minor, and Carlos Santana via free agency.

That being said, while the Royals will likely be a “minor” player in the free-agent market, there are still some lingering questions that remain in regard to their roster as baseball, in general, is embedded in this lockout. While the Royals did improve to 74-88 in 2021, this Royals organization and fanbase want to see improvement, and perhaps make a run toward a record that is .500 or better in 2022. In order for that to happen, some roster questions need to be answered by Spring Training, or at the very latest, by Opening Day.

Let’s take a look at three roster questions that are probably on the minds of many Royals fans as the baseball world stands still during this Winter lockout, which has no definite end, as of now.


What is the plan for Ryan O’Hearn and Cam Gallagher?

Two surprise players who were tendered contracts were O’Hearn and Gallagher, who seem to be expendable after first baseman Nick Pratto and catcher MJ Melendez (among others) were added to the 40-man roster this offseason on November 19th:

While it is likely that Pratto and Melendez won’t make the Opening Day roster, barring unbelievable Cactus League campaigns, it seems weird that Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo held onto O’Hearn and Gallagher, especially considering the depth at the first base and catcher positions on the Royals 40-man roster.

Prior to the non-tender deadline, it felt like it would make more sense for the Royals to part ways with both of them. They don’t seem to be in the Royals’ long-term options, especially since O’Hearn and Gallagher are both 28-years-old (and will be 29 next year).

The Royals are currently carrying four catchers on their roster, with Sebatian Rivero and Salvador Perez being the other two in addition to Gallagher and Melendez. Of the two, Gallagher makes a little more sense to stay in Kansas City for time being, especially when Royals fans take a look at his defensive value.

Since debuting in 2017, Gallagher has been 15.2 Def runs above average, according to Fangraphs (that included a 4.9 Def runs above average mark in 2021). To compare, take a look at the advanced defensive metrics from Royals catchers a year ago, and Gallagher stands out tremendously:

While Gallagher’s bat leaves a little bit to be desired (71 wRC+ last year), his framing ability (3.2 runs saved via framing last year, according to Fangraphs) is a much needed asset for this club going into next season, especially considering Salvy’s historical struggles when it comes to framing.

It is probably likely that the Royals are entertaining offers for Gallagher, and nothing seriously developed before the lockout. Thus, it makes sense for the Royals to continue to hold onto Gallagher for now, especially in preparation for Spring Training, where multiple catchers will be needed to handle the Royals pitching corps. Furthermore, Gallagher being on the roster continues to give them more time to explore possible trades, though such a deal may not happen until after the start of the 2022 season.

Which is fine. Melendez will probably start in Omaha anyways, and it’s not certain that Rivero can hit enough yet to be a regular Major League backup (33 wRC+ last year).

On the other hand, O’Hearn is a bigger head scratcher, especially when looking at his metrics since 2019.

Over the past three years, he’s posted wRC+ numbers of 68, 65, and 70, respectively, and he has accumulated a total fWAR over that timespan of -2.1. Sure, O’Hearn seems to be widely liked in the Royals clubhouse, and he can have stretches of time where he adds some much-needed power in the lineup. However, it seems weird that the Royals continue to commit to O’Hearn over other options like Ryan McBroom (who is now trying to play abroad) and even Edward Olivares (who still remains on the 40-man roster).

Will the Royals be looking to give O’Hearn a chance to earn a bench or utility spot in Spring Training? Are the Royals doing some kind of development plan to help him tap into that budding power? (He will need to raise that flyball rate, though he did see some gain from 2020 to 2021.) Is O’Hearn on the roster just to fill a spot for a future roster move, such as adding Bobby Witt, Jr. or Seuly Matias, after Spring Training begins?

Whatever the Royals plan is, it will be nice for Royals fans to know sooner rather than later, because right now, it’s uncertain to see how O’Hearn will make this club on Opening Day (though to be fair, he still has a Minor League option remaining).


What will this rotation look like by Opening Day?

The Royals have plenty of promising arms on the 40-man roster. In fact, five pitchers from the 2018 draft pitched fro the Royals last season, which is pretty incredible considering that draft was nearly four years ago, and a Minor League season was lost in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic:

In addition to those five pitchers (Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, Jackson Kowar, and Jon Heasley), the Royals also saw Carlos Hernandez make a run as one of the Royals’ best starting pitchers, and could be a candidate to be the Opening Day starter in 2022. Furthermore, the Royals also have veterans Mike Minor and Brad Keller (well…he’s veteran-ish) returning (for now), and they have track records of being successful starting pitchers, even though they struggled with consistency in 2021. Lastly, the Royals also just added Jonathan Bowlan to the 40-man, and though he won’t make the Opening Day roster, he could make a case for a spot in the rotation if he returns to form.

The Royals have a lot of depth, but unfortunately, they do not have a “bonafide” ace.

Minor provides a veteran presence and can eat innings (158.2 IP last year, which led Royals starters), but he posted a 5.05 ERA, not exactly what the Royals hoped for when they signed him to a two-year deal. After Minor, the Royals lack much “veteran” help in the rotation, and there is a need for a “mentor” or “rock” in the starting staff who the Royals could go to, much like they did with James Shields in 2013 and 2014.

With the starting pitcher free agent market being what it is (i.e. expensive), it is likely that the Royals will need to see a pitcher currently on the 40-man roster step up and embrace that “ace” role, both in terms of performance and in the clubhouse.

Can Singer be that guy (though he needs a third pitch)? Can Lynch, who has the most upside of the bunch, make that leap now that he has a season at the MLB level under his belt? Could Hernandez be what he was in the second half, but over a full season?

The Royals starting pitching has a lot of potential, but there are too many questions lingering right now for Royals fans to feel comfortable. Standing pat may be the easiest solution, but the Royals need something to help solidify the rotation in 2022…

Royals fans unfortunately won’t get any progress toward that answer until after the lockout, and who knows how it will get solidified by Opening Day.


Where will the Royals spend their money leading up to Spring Training?

While I know many Royals fans like to dump on Moore and the Royals front office (and I get it, considering all the losing seasons), I do not think the Royals are just hoarding money just to do so.

Though John Sherman is only beginning his third season as the Royals’ principal owner, he strikes me as an owner who is more willing to spend to be competitive in comparison to his previous counterpart, David Glass, who didn’t really start spending until the 2013 and 2014 seasons. The Royals are not the Guardians, Pirates, or Orioles, who hoard money mostly due to extremely “cheap” owners.

The Royals will spend money at some point, when the “hot stove” season resumes after the lockout. I don’t see the Royals just “standing pat” after a previous offseason where they signed three key players (Taylor, Minor, and Santana) and traded for another one (Andrew Benintendi). It is likely that the Royals were working on some moves, but unfortunately just ran out of time before the lockout deadline on December 1st.

The big question now though is this: when the lockout is over, WHERE will the Royals spend their money?

Will they look to extend Benintendi, who is in his last year of arbitration (in the current CBA format) and will be a free agent after the 2022 season?

Will they perhaps give a mega-deal extension to Witt, Jr., even though he hasn’t played an inning at the Major League level just yet? The Rays did something similar to Wander Franco, even though Franco just made his debut a season ago:

Or will the Royals try to improve their roster with a possible free agent signing or trade, as the market will definitely be an intriguing one when the lockout ends. It is likely that unsigned free agents may agree to cheaper deals when players are free to sign again, and that could be even more likely if the lockout takes 2-3 more months to end.

And honestly, there are still a lot of free agents out there who could boost this Royals roster, and may not be out of their price range, if last offseason is any indicator (though I do not see the Royals committing to more than two-years for any free agent):

These three scenarios will be ones to watch from Royals fans, especially once the lockout ends. The Royals will spend some cash this offseason at some point, it just depends HOW they will spend it.

That being said, it is likely that they will only pursue ONE of these scenarios. Sherman wants this team to be competitive, but it strikes me that he’s going to build this team close in spirit to the team he used to be a part of (i.e. Cleveland). He’s not going to be a Steve Cohen-esque owner (and honestly, that’s probably a good thing).

It’ll be interesting to see this offseason which of those scenarios comes to fruition by the start of Spring Training or by Opening Day, at the latest.

Photo Credit: Ralph Freso/Getty Images

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