Four Royals Non-Roster Invitees to Pay Close Attention to This Spring

Baseball fans have 29 days until Spring Training, and safe to say, it couldn’t come soon enough, especially with most of the country going through a cold spell (including here in Kansas City).

The Royals have had a busy week transactions-wise, as they traded Michael A. Taylor and Adalberto Mondesi to the Twins and Red Sox, respectively. It sounds like there may be another move or two from the Royals’ end, which means that it’s hard to gauge what this roster will look like when players report to camp in Surprise.

That said, there are some non-roster Spring Training invitees worth paying attention to in Cactus League play, both from inside the organization (i.e. Royals draft picks or international signings) and from outside as well (Minor League free agents).

In this post, I will look at four Royals players (two pitchers and two position players) invited to Spring Training who could have interesting cases to make when making the Opening Day roster in 2023.

Matt Beaty, 1B/OF

The Royals signed Beaty to a Minor League contract this offseason, which is a surprise after he hit .093 and posted a -0.7 fWAR in 20 games and 47 plate appearances with the Padres in 2022. While those surface-level metrics are not great, Beaty isn’t that far removed from a decent campaign with the Dodgers.

In 120 games with Los Angeles in 2021, Beaty posted a 114 wRC+ and a slash of .270/.363/.402 with seven home runs and 40 RBI in 234 plate appearances. The defense wasn’t great (-6 OAA in OF; 2 OAA at 1B), which explains why he only posted a 0.5 fWAR two seasons ago with the Dodgers. That said, Beaty has flashed the kind of power and hitting ability from the left side that the Royals hoped they could’ve gotten from Ryan O’Hearn in the past couple of seasons (which may explain why the Royals were willing to trade him to Baltimore).

Here’s an example of Beaty showcasing that smooth stroke from the left side at Dodgers Stadium to break a tie game against Brewers relief pitcher Jandel Gustave:

Ironically, the Royals did draft Beaty out of high school, but he elected to go to college at Belmont University instead.

Anne Rogers recently profiled his journey to being a non-roster Royals invite in a recent article, and safe to say, it’ll be interesting to see if hitting coach Alec Zumwalt and Director of Hitting Development Drew Saylor will help him make enough adjustments to earn a spot on the Royals’ Opening Day roster.

It will be a long shot for Beaty to make the Royals club out of Spring Training, especially with Nick Pratto getting 182 plate appearances last year, and Hunter Dozier still on the roster (though who knows for how long). However, it seemed for a period of time, manager Matt Quatraro was willing to give plate appearances to O’Hearn to give the Royals some hitting depth off the bench.

Perhaps Beaty could find himself sliding into that role on Opening Day at Kauffman on March 30th.

Nick Wittgren, RHP

Wittgren signed a Minor League contract with the Royals while coming off a brutal campaign in St. Louis last season. In 29 appearances and 29 innings pitched, the 31-year-old reliever put up a 5.90 ERA and 12.7 percent K rate, the latter being the worst percentage of his career. It was also the second-straight season he posted an ERA over five, and it makes sense why the Cardinals designated him for assignment in July.

Wittgren could be an intriguing bullpen option for the Royals, especially if his cutter is on. Two seasons ago, he generated a 25 percent whiff rate and a 16 percent put-away rate with the pitch, according to Baseball Savant.

Here is an example of Wittgren striking out Detroit’s Eric Haase on his cutter back in 2021, and notice how it is an intriguing pitch with some nice horizontal movement (which prompts Haase to chase it out of the strike zone).

While Wittgren’s best recent season came in 2019, he did post a 3.84 FIP last season in St. Louis, which hints that he may not have been as bad as his ERA indicated. Wittgren will also be reunited with former coach Brian Sweeney, who was in Cleveland when Wittgren pitched there. It will be interesting to see if the Royals’ new pitching coach will be able to tap into that reliever who was so productive in Cleveland in 2019 and 2020.

The positive note is that Wittgren brings a solid presence to the clubhouse, which is good to have on a young, rebuilding team. Athletic Cardinals beat writer Katie Woo brought this tidbit up shortly after Wittgren was released by St. Louis last year:

The Royals have had some success turning around relievers coming off rough stints, with Trevor Rosenthal and Domingo Tapia being recent examples.

Can Wittgren be another success story in Kansas City in 2023? The bullpen certainly needs it after ranking 27th in reliever ERA last season.

Dairon Blanco, OF

Thanks to the Royals’ COVID issues, Blanco got a brief call-up last season, though it didn’t amount to much playing time in his MLB debut. He only played in five games and accumulated seven plate appearances last year, though he did record two hits, including this second career hit below which plated Hunter Dozier for the RBI against the Diamondbacks.

While there hasn’t been much of an MLB sample, Blanco has raked in his last two levels in the Minors over the past two seasons.

In 2021 in Double-A Northwest Arkansas, he posted a wRC+ of 119 and slashed .289/.360/.454 in 329 plate appearances. That also included nine home runs, 62 RBI, and 32 stolen bases.

Last year in Omaha proved to be more of the same as well from Blanco. He not only posted a wRC+ of 125 and slashed .301/.367/.486 in 414 plate appearances, but he also stole 45 bases and hit 14 home runs, including this tank below:

Blanco is also coming off a solid Puerto Rican Winter League campaign which included a .301/.345/.361 slash and 18 RBI in 199 plate appearances. He also stole 25 bases on 30 attempts in 47 games, so his speed continues to be a plus tool of his, even though it doesn’t seem to be talked about enough in prospect circles.

The Royals’ outfield is a lot more open after the trade of Taylor. Could Blanco and his unique hit and speed toolset make a case for an outfield spot this Spring, even with him about to turn 30 in late April?

Brooks Kriske, RHP

It is easy to take a look at Kriske’s career ERA (14.40 in 15 MLB IP) and fWAR (-0.8) and wonder why the Royals would even give him an invite to Spring Training this season.

A deeper dive into his stats in the NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) with the Yokohama Bay Stars showcase an intriguing profile. It also makes one wonder if he made an adjustment last year and could be a sleeper out of the bullpen for the Royals this Spring and perhaps during the regular season in 2023.

Kriske started the 2022 season in the Eastern League (Japan’s Minor Leagues). While his ERA of 4.20 over 15 IP wasn’t eye-popping, his 5.4 H/9, 18.0 K/9, and 3.33 K/BB ratio were a lot more impressive. When he made the promotion to the Central League, his ERA improved to 2.57 in 21 IP, and he still maintained a solid K/9 (11.1) and K/BB ratio (2.00) as well.

The experience was positive for both the Bay Stars, as evidenced by this goodbye Tweet from Kriske after the conclusion of the NPB season:

While it seemed like Kriske earned some much-needed confidence in Japan, it also seemed like he was able to work on developing his pitches as well with the Bay Stars. King of Juco brought him on to face him in an at-bat for his Twitter channel, and the popular Social Media baseball personality struggled against the movement of Kriske’s splitter.

Did JJ Picollo and Sweeney see something in Kriske’s splitter in Japan that makes them think that he can transition it successfully to the MLB level in 2023? Kriske threw the splitter 39.7 percent of the time in 2021, but it only averaged 84.9 MPH, according to Baseball Savant.

Nonetheless, he was still able a decent number of swinging strikes on it in 2021, as evidenced by his 50.1 percent whiff rate. Here’s an example of him getting Xander Boegarts to swing and miss on the splitter early in the count.

As Royals fans can see in the clip above, that splitter clocked in at 85 MPH…

One has to wonder what the results for Kriske could be this Spring with a splitter that is 10 MPH faster.

Photo Credit: Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports


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