The MLB lockout is thankfully over, which means not only is baseball back (and player pictures returning on the MLB team pages) but Spring Training is set to begin again as well:
It will be a slightly abbreviated Spring camp in Surprise, Arizona for the Royals. However, that doesn’t mean that it will be any less important, as there will be the typical Spring Training competition stories in Arizona that will capture the attention of Royals fans until Opening Day, which is now scheduled for April 7th at Kauffman Stadium (I already got my tickets…yes, I’m a masochist sometimes).
With players able to report over the weekend, and the Royals’ first Cactus League game scheduled (tentatively as of now) for March 20th against the Cleveland Guardians, let’s take a look at five storylines that Royals fans should be paying attention to in Royals Spring camp over the next few weeks.
Bobby Witt, Jr. and Opening Day
With baseball back and scheduled to begin in the first full week of April, one of the big questions on the minds of most (if not all) Royals fans will be this:
Will Bobby Witt, Jr. be in the Royals’ starting lineup on Opening Day?
Thankfully for Royals fans anticipating Witt’s arrival to Kansas City, the new CBA makes it easier for MLB clubs to call up their top prospects without losing them earlier to free agency, as was the case in the old system.
Now, Dayton Moore hasn’t been shy to call up prospects quickly to the Major Leagues in the past couple of years.
He called up Singer in 2020, even though he could’ve waited a couple of weeks and garnered another year in arbitration at the time. In 2021, Kyle Isbel was named the Royals’ Opening Day right fielder, even though his highest level played was High-A ball prior to his callup.
Hence, even before this newly-changed system in the CBA, it was still highly likely that the Royals would call up Witt on Opening Day.
That being said, where will Witt play in the field on Opening Day on April 7th against Cleveland?
Currently, the Royals have Nicky Lopez and Adalberto Mondesi as options at shortstop. However, Lopez could easily move to second base, if necessary, and Mondesi spent most of the season playing third base after he returned from injury down the stretch. Therefore, if the Royals are serious about Witt being a long-term anchor for this club for the foreseeable future, it would be ideal for Witt to play his natural position of shortstop, especially to begin his Major League career.
Unfortunately, that will have an effect on Whit Merrifield and his defensive outlook for 2022.
If the Royals decide to play Mondesi at third base and Nicky at second, that would push Merrifield to right field. While Whit can “play” right field, he’s not as good a defensive option as Isbel, and he is much better defensively at second base full-time, as he demonstrated a season ago.
Thus, what will Mike Matheny and Moore do this Spring?
Will they keep Whit at second, especially since he is one of the faces of the franchise currently (along with Salvador Perez)? Or will they move him back to the outfield in order to clear room for Witt, even if it may result in Isbel starting the year in Triple-A Omaha as a result?
How Matheny and the Royals utilize Witt in Cactus League games could be very telling of what the Royals plan to do in the field not just for 2022, but beyond as well.
Adalberto Mondesi and His Health
There’s no question that this Royals team is better with Mondesi in the lineup.
Last season, despite only accumulating 136 plate appearances, Mondesi posted the second-best barrel rate (12.8 percent) of Royals hitters, as well as the second-best expected Slugging Percentage (xSLG) at .473. Those metrics show that Mondesi is not just a speed demon on the basepaths, but is starting to mature as a hitter, especially on a power-end.
And defensively? Even at third base, Mondesi proved that he can be an asset to the Royals infield in both the short and long term, as demonstrated in this clip below:
Mondesi has always been a tantalizing talent for the Royals. Unfortunately, his inability to stay on the field and injury-free has frustrated Royals fans the past few seasons.
Even though Moore in a radio interview last season initially claimed that the Royals couldn’t “depend” on Mondesi going forward, the Royals have recently shown a commitment to support Mondesi this offseason. By the end of the season, it seemed like the Royals development team had a workout and strength plan in place for Mondesi this Winter, in order to preserve his health for 2022.
However, thanks to the lockout, who knows what kind of shape Mondesi is in, and how much of the workout plan the Royals and Mondesi were able to implement this offseason.
I guess Royals fans will get a first glimpse of how he is looking on Sunday, the team’s first official day of reporting to camp in Surprise.
Brady Singer and His “Third Pitch”
Brady Singer was on with 610 AM Radio Royals insider Josh Vernier yesterday, and one of the topics they talked about was the status of his “third pitch” going into Spring Training.
Here’s a Tweet to Singer’s segment with Vernier below:
What’s interesting to note in the conversation is that Singer and Vernier don’t specify what his “third pitch” is. All Singer says is that he’s been using it more and he feels more confident in it.
Now, Singer implied to Vernier that he had thrown this pitch before. Thus, if we have to guess, his “third pitch” is most likely his changeup, as it was his third-most used pitch last year, as evidenced from this month-by-month pitch usage chart from Savant:
Will Royals fans see Singer test out his changeup more this Spring?
That pretty much was an Achilles heel for Singer in 2021, and a big reason why his ERA jumped from 4.06 in 2020 to 4.91 in 2021. Hitters just knew what to look for (sinker or slider) and they feasted on those pitches in hitter’s counts and when Singer made mistakes in command with those two pitches (though that didn’t always result in home runs, as Singer’s barrel rate allowed still ranked in the 83rd percentile, according to Savant).
Increased usage of his changeup could keep hitters more honest, which in turn, could make his sinker and slider more effective in 2022.
Let’s hope Singer uses that changeup more this Spring, even if it produces mixed results initially in Cactus League play.
Kyle Isbel and a Spot in the Outfield
If Mondesi is healthy, and Witt is able to make the squad out of Spring Training, it seems like Isbel would be the odd man out, especially if Ryan O’Hearn makes the Opening Day roster as well.
With O’Hearn, the Royals will have a left-handed bench bat and utility player who could play the outfield, which makes Isbel’s presence on the active roster superfluous. If the Royals needed another outfielder beyond O’Hearn, it would make more sense for the Royals to keep up Edward Olivares, who is right-handed and has some interesting tools (speed especially).
That being said, Isbel is getting some buzz from baseball analysts outside of the Royals fanbase, as evidenced by this piece on Fangraphs from Jake Mailhot:
Mailhot appears to be optimistic about the adjustments Isbel made from his first exposure against Major League pitching at the beginning of 2021 to his second callup in September. Here’s what Mailhot says about those adjustments in his Fangraphs piece:
In his initial exposure to major league pitching, Isbel was both too passive and unable to make consistent contact when he did swing; his strikeout rate far exceeded the 20.3% mark he had posted during his minor league career. But his strikeout rate in Triple-A was right in line with his previous career norms, and when he was recalled, it was far more manageable. Likewise, his walk rate bounced back past his minor league career rate of 8.1%. Isbel’s new approach wasn’t perfect — he still chased out of the zone a little too often — but the increased aggression on pitches in the zone did wonders for his contact rate.“Don’t Forget About Kyle Isbel,” by Jake Mailhot; Fangraphs
The Royals haven’t really been kind to young outfielders since Lorenzo Cain left Kansas City after the 2017 season.
Brett Phillips, Brian Goodwin, and even Edward Olivares are all young outfielders who have shown flashes of promise in the Royals outfield since 2018, and yet they failed to get many chances during their respective tenures in Kansas City (though Olivares is still with the Royals organization, so maybe that changes this year). It would be a drag for Isbel to follow that path, especially considering the promise he showed at the end of the 2021 season.
Now, a big difference for Isbel is that he was drafted by the Royals, and it seems like Moore tends to prefer guys who were drafted and were developed primarily in the Royals system (which wasn’t the case for the other three). Second, Isbel has already earned some favor with the Royals organization in the past. Moore and Matheny wouldn’t have given him an Opening Day job had they not seen him as a long-term option in Kansas City.
I think Isbel will start the year in Omaha, barring an absolutely phenomenal Spring from him or an absolutely atrocious Spring from O’Hearn or someone else. That being said, Isbel will eventually make his way to Kansas City once something happens on the Royals roster, whether it’s a trade, DFA, or injury.
And when he arrives in Kansas City, hopefully, Isbel does enough to stay up for the remainder of the 2022 season.
Daniel Lynch and the Royals Rotation
If Royals fans check out the Roster Resource Depth Chart on Fangraphs, Daniel Lynch is scheduled to begin the year in the Triple-A Omaha rotation.
And I totally get it.
Lynch didn’t have the greatest debut in 2021, as he posted a 5.69 ERA, a 1.77 K/BB ratio, and a 0.5 fWAR in 15 starts and 68 IP. While his 4.82 FIP and 67.4 percent strand rate (LOB%) hint that he was a little unlucky in his rookie campaign, he didn’t quite miss as many bats as hoped, which could be a problem for him going forward, especially if he wants to be the “ace” of the Royals rotation in the near future.
Last season, the former Virginia Cavalier only generated a strikeout rate of 17 percent and a CSW (called strike plus whiff) rate of 25.1 percent, both ho-hum marks. Furthermore, according to Savant, his K rate ranked in the 12th percentile, and that wasn’t helped by a walk rate that ranked in the 27th percentile either. (A lack of strikeouts with a high number of walks is a recipe for disaster).
However, when looking at his percentiles, there is some promise for Lynch in 2022, especially if Royals fans pay attention to his whiff rate and fastball velocity:
Thus, if Lynch can iron out his command, especially on the four-seamer, it is possible that Lynch could earn a spot in the rotation, perhaps as a sixth starter to give the Royals more rotation depth at the beginning of the year with a shortened Spring camp.
(The expansion of roster to 28 players to start the year will help Lynch’s case.)
Here’s an example of Lynch in August at Kauffman Stadium utilizing the good rise on his four-seamer and locating it effectively up in the zone in order to get Rougned Odor of the Yankees to strike out swinging on a 3-2 count.
The Royals will be paying attention to a lot of their heralded pitching prospects this Spring, including Jackson Kowar and Asa Lacy, who are coming off up-and-down campaigns in 2021.
However, Lynch, and whether or not he can earn a spot in the rotation this Spring, will be a huge focus for the Royals. If he does earn that spot and looks like his July and August self in Cactus League play, then the Royals may be in better shape pitching-wise than they initially imagined.
And that will only bode good things for the club overall and their chances in the AL Central division in 2022.
Photo Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports