Unfortunately for baseball fans everywhere, it appears likely that Spring Training will be delayed, with the number of games anyone’s guess after negotiation talks between MLB owners and the MLBPA stalling again on Friday:
(Side Note: Go get ’em Whit)
It is easy to get pessimistic about the state of Major League Baseball right now, and I have discussed already how this could affect the Royals in Kansas City among KC casual sports fans. However, as a Royals blogger and hardcore baseball fan, I still remain somewhat optimistic that even though the Cactus League will see lost games, the regular season will start on time, as initially scheduled. After a lost season of gate revenue in 2020, and with most teams getting hurt in the first couple of months of 2021 due to attendance limits, MLB owners cannot afford to lose more gate revenue and games, especially if their goal is to “maximize profits.”
Eventually, something will happen, even if it may harm Major League Baseball in the long term.
That being said, I am not focusing on the state of the game in this post.
Rather, I am trying to keep a “rose-colored” glasses perspective, and I am imagining a “decently-sized” Cactus League campaign this upcoming Spring, even if a few games are lost in this lockout negotiation process.
Because honestly, there will be some interesting Spring Training stories in this upcoming Royals camp in Surprise, Arizona.
Every Spring, there are always “roster battles” that dominate the narrative in Spring camp. Which players will make the team? Who will get cut? Which prospects will gain momentum with strong Cactus League campaigns? And which ones will lose luster with Royals fans and baseball experts after mediocre performances in Arizona?
In this post, I am going to look at four Royals players who are on the edge when it comes to making the active, and perhaps even 40-man roster by Opening Day. However, while their outlook may not be good for the upcoming 2022 season, if things click for them this Spring, they could be surprising contributors to the Royals roster, even if these four players have their fair share of doubters and detractors already.
Let’s take a look at these four Royals players looking to earn an Opening Day roster spot this Spring, and what they could offer the Royals in 2022, should they show some progress either at the plate or mound in Cactus League play, however long it should be.
Joel Payamps, RP
Payamps was acquired by the Royals last year after being designated for assignment by the Toronto Blue Jays. In 15 appearances and 20.1 IP, the 27-year-old righty posted a 4.43 ERA with the Royals. However, his full-season ERA, when accounting for his numbers with the Blue Jays prior to the trade, was much more palatable at 3.40 in 50.1 IP.
Payamps doesn’t possess great swing and miss stuff, as he only posted a K rate of 18.5 percent last year and a CSW rate of 25.3 percent, which are both underwhelming marks. That being said, he does a good job of limiting hard contact, as he only allowed a barrel rate of 5.3 percent and a hard-hit rate of 29.6 percent, according to Statcast metrics, via Fangraphs. His groundball rate was also high last season at 44.4 percent, and he demonstrated some good athleticism on the mound, as evidenced by this solid defensive play in 2021:
His profile may not really fit a late-inning role in Kansas City, but as a middle reliever or even possible Opener (which he did once with the Royals last season), he can be quite effective.
Unfortunately for Payamps, the Royals have a pitching logjam in the upper Minors, as Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Angel Zerpa, Jon Heasley, and Ronald Bolanos, all pitchers who pitched with the Royals last year, are expected to begin the year in Omaha, according to Roster Resource’s Depth Chart.
Considering Payamps is out of Minor League options, it may be superfluous to keep him on the active roster as a middle or long reliever, especially when the role could be better suited on a younger, higher-upside arm like Zerpa, Bolanos, or even Kowar.
Thus, if Payamps wants to stay on this roster, he will not only need to be lights-out in Cactus League play, but he will also need to show that he can be depended on in higher-leverage moments in 2022. That isn’t to say he needs to be considered for setup or closing opportunities immediately. Nonetheless, he needs to show manager Mike Matheny that he could be thrown in high leverage situations in a pinch, especially if Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont, or Domingo Tapia need an off day.
Should Payamps not be able to show glimpses of that potential this Spring, it is possible that he could be off the Royals roster by Opening Day, and perhaps pitching for another organization in 2022 as well.
JaCoby Jones, OF
Jones signed a Minor League deal with the Royals this offseason, and it seems like he will be a longshot to make the Royals’ Opening Day roster.
Formerly in the Tigers organization, Jones really struggled in his last season in Detroit, as he struck out 40 percent of the time, hit .170, and posted an fWAR of -1.0 in 36 games and 105 plate appearances. Thus, it is not a surprise that the Tigers parted ways with him this offseason in order to clear room for elite position prospects such as Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, who could make their MLB debuts this season.
Though Jones will be 30 in May, the Royals found success with another late-blooming outfielder in Michael A. Taylor last season. Though Jones doesn’t have Taylor’s defensive skills, he does offer more power upside than the Royals’ starting center fielder. Jones hit 11 home runs and posted a 92 wRC+ in 2019 and 5 home runs and a 128 wRC+ in 2020, which shows that at the very least, Jones possesses some power potential, even it may not be consistent.
Additionally, Jones has proven to be capable of making sensational plays in Comerica Park during his time in Detroit, which also has spacious outfield grounds, much like Kauffman Stadium:
There is a dearth of centerfield prospects in the upper minors of the Royals system, and though Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares merit more playing time, it seems like they would be better suited in the corners rather than centerfield (which is a reason why Dayton Moore signed Taylor to an extension at the end of last season). However, Jones could be a fit defensively in centerfield at Kauffman Stadium, and if he can show that he is closer to his 2020 self rather than his 2021 self at the plate, he could push himself into the “backup” outfielder discussion, which would put less pressure on Matheny to play Taylor every day.
Of course, Jones is a non-roster invitee, so in order to make the Opening Day roster, the Royals would need to DFA someone currently on the 40-man. It would be a shame for a younger player like Olivares or Emmanuel Rivera to be put on waivers in favor of a 30-year-old who has only generated a 0.2 fWAR in 352 career MLB games.
However, this is the Royals and we have seen weirder things before from Moore and the Royals front office.
Lucas Duda and Chris Owings in 2018 are prime examples.
Tyler Zuber, RP
Zuber seems to be a likable dude, and he interacts frequently with Royals fans and baseball content creators online, which endears him to baseball fans like myself.
It was really great to hear him as a guest on the Royals Rundown podcast (run by Lucas and Jacob, amazing Royals content creators), and I definitely am rooting for him in the upcoming season, as he seems like a level-headed and genuine dude:
Unfortunately, despite Zuber’s likability, he really hasn’t produced in the Royals bullpen in his first two seasons in the big leagues.
In 54 career games and 49.1 IP, Zuber has a career 5.29 ERA and has accumulated a career fWAR of -0.5. While Zuber does have a career K rate of 24.8 percent, his walk rate is astronomically high at 16.7 percent, which results in a lackluster K-BB rate of 8.1 percent.
That is a far cry from a pitcher who was known for his pinpoint control and command in the Royals’ Minor League system, as he posted K-BB rates of 23.5 percent and 25 percent in High-A Wilmington and Double-A Northwest Arkansas in 2019, respectively.
Roster Resource is projecting Zuber to begin the year in Triple-A Omaha bullpen. In 2021, he performed well with the Storm Chasers, as he posted a 2.83 ERA and a 37.1 K rate, and a 23.3 percent K-BB rate in 28.1 IP in Triple-A. Thus, while Zuber has not really impressed out of the bullpen with the Royals over the past two years, he has at least shown that he may not have anything to prove next season in Minor League ball.
Therefore, this will be a crucial Spring for Zuber.
If he can harness his control and limit the walks this Spring, that could give hope to the Royals brass that he can showcase better control and command at the Major League level in 2022. That could make him a more enticing, long-term option in middle relief for the Royals, which is an area they have struggled with the past few seasons.
However, if Zuber continues to struggle to find the strike zone in Cactus League play, the Royals could give up on him sooner rather than later, especially with newer options on the 40-man available in Collin Snider and Nathan Webb.
Zuber still has a Minor League option, so it’s doubtful that he will be pitching outside the Kansas City organization in 2021.
That being said, he could be a roster cut next Winter, especially if he doesn’t show much growth on the mound in 2022.
Ryan O’Hearn, 1B/OF
The Royals surprised a lot of fans this Winter by tendering O’Hearn a contract, even though many were projecting him to be released, especially after failing to do much in the seasons following a sensational 2018 debut.
O’Hearn has taken the vitriol from Royals fans online in stride, which was demonstrated in his Tweet the day after the November 30th non-tender deadline:
Now, it is easy to focus on the negatives of O’Hearn’s profile.
He has a career -1.3 fWAR in 275 career MLB games and his walk rate plummeted from 13.6 percent in 2020 to 5.1 percent in 2021 (which also resulted in his BB/K ratio going from 0.49 in 2020 to 0.18 last season). Additionally, O’Hearn offers little to no defensive value in the field, as he has a -10 DRS (defensive runs saved) mark at first base and -1 DRS in the outfield (he just began playing in right field last year).
Therefore, Royals fans should just throw in the towel on O’Hearn, right?
While it would be a safe bet, I don’t think O’Hearn is COMPLETELY done by any means.
Just hear me out.
Now, when it comes to being a regular player in Kansas City, O’Hearn has probably seen that ship sail. However, it is possible that O’Hearn could be a valuable platoon bat or pinch hitter off the bench, which is not a bad weapon to have, especially over the course of a full 162-game season.
While O’Hearn’s average doesn’t look impressive at .225, it was his second-best mark in his four-year career with the Royals and was a 30-point improvement from his 2019 and 2020 batting averages. Additionally, his 70 wRC+ was his best mark in that category since 2018, and he also saw gains in barrel rate (8.3 percent) and launch angle (14.3 degrees) from 2020. Lastly, O’Hearn also saw an improvement in contact rate (73.9 percent; up from 71.8 percent in 2020) and posted a career-low in CSW (called-strike plus whiff) rate (26.6 percent).
The career-low BB/K ratio doesn’t look impressive. But all the other metrics show that O’Hearn is getting better at not just making contact, but making better quality contact, even if it didn’t necessarily show in many of his surface-level metrics last year.
When O’Hearn did make that productive contact last year, it was quite impressive, as evidenced in this home run to straightaway center at Fenway Park:
Royals fans need to think “outside-the-box” with O’Hearn this Spring.
He does still hit too many groundballs for a power hitter (42.9 percent GB rate; though that was an improvement from the past two years). That being said, in a more refined and limited role, O’Hearn could be that platoon and bench bat that could come through in key moments for the Royals next season. He also could provide positional insurance, should Nick Pratto struggle in his adjustment to the Major Leagues, which could be likely considering Pratto’s struggles at the plate in High-A ball in 2019.
Expectations should not be high for O’Hearn, and if he tanks this Spring, he should probably be gone from the Royals organization.
But if he performs this Spring?
Well…it will be interesting to see if Matheny gets creative with him in 2022…
Which will not only benefit O’Hearn but perhaps the Royals lineup overall next season as well.
Photo Credit: Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images