MLB Spring Training games begin in 13 days. Safe to say, I think Royals fans are ready for baseball after a long, weird offseason (though for Kansas City sports fans, it hasn’t been boring with the Chiefs in the Super Bowl, and Kansas, Kansas State, and Missouri having solid men’s basketball seasons).
We are seeing Royals bloggers and content creators start to release their pre-Spring Training roster projections, and I will probably release my own version soon before Cactus League games begin. That said, some Royals position battles are worth watching this Spring in Arizona, as some positions could be snagged up with some solid showings in Cactus League play.
Here are five position battles that Royals fans should pay attention to this Spring, and how they could affect the Opening Day roster on March 30th.
Second Base: Michael Massey vs. Nicky Lopez
Massey probably has the slight lead going into camp, and it makes sense considering Massey has a lot more of a power upside than the more defensively-minded Lopez. While Massey only posted a 93 wRC+ in 52 games and 194 plate appearances, that still was much better than Lopez’s 57 wRC+ in 124 games and 480 plate appearances.
Massey showcases more potential with the bat, especially in barreling the ball. Despite a .243 average, Massey did generate a 13 percent barrel rate and .133 ISO in 2022. He also hit four home runs, including the first one below which came against the Rays in Tampa Bay.
Comparatively, Lopez only posted a barrel rate of 1.6 percent and an ISO of .046 in 2022. Unfortunately, his career numbers in those categories aren’t great either, as he carries a career barrel rate of 1.0 percent and ISO of .069.
While Nicky lacks in the power department, he still makes a lot more contact than Massey (85.4 percent career contact rate to Massey’s 73.2 percent mark), strikes out less (13.1 percent to Massey’s 23.7 percent in 2022), and was more efficient defensively in the field as well. Lopez was 14 outs above average last year, according to Baseball Savant, which led all Royals fielders. Conversely, Massey was four outs below average, which put him in the middle of the pack for Royals fielders a season ago, which can be seen in the table below.
The Royals plan on employing Bobby Witt, Jr. and Hunter Dozier at shortstop and third base, respectively, to begin the year in 2023. Royals fans know they cannot expect much defensively from Dozier. That said, if Witt fails to make progress this Spring, and if Massey doesn’t show much improvement in Surprise either, manager Matt Quatraro may be forced to play Nicky at the keystone on Opening Day to make up for those defensive inefficiencies in the right side of the infield.
Centerfield: Kyle Isbel vs. Drew Waters
Shortly after the Michael A. Taylor and Adalberto Mondesi trades, Royals GM JJ Picollo immediately mentioned that two possible replacements for Taylor in 2023 could be either Kyle Isbel or Drew Waters.
Isbel is projected to be the Royals’ starting left fielder and Waters is projected to be the Royals’ starting center fielder, according to Roster Resource.
Penciling in Waters in centerfield isn’t far-fetched, especially since that was his primary position as a prospect in the Atlanta Braves system prior to being traded over to Kansas City last summer. That being said, it is possible that Isbel could be the one that emerges as the Royals’ starting centerfielder on March 30th.
First off, Isbel proved to be a much better fielder in center field in 2022 than Waters defensively, according to the metrics. Isbel’s +11 OAA mark was 13 outs better than Waters’ OAA last season. Even though Waters’ sample size is small (he only had 74 attempts compared to Isbel’s 209), it does appear according to the data that Waters would be better utilized in right field.
According to his box plot chart, Waters has a lot more shades of red (which is good) in the right field than in center (which has a lot more shades of blue, which is bad).
Isbel’s box plot chart has a lot of red as well in right (deeper red than Waters actually). However, Isbel’s attempts are a lot more spread out, and he has fewer shades of blue in centerfield than Waters.
On the defensive end, Isbel holds a slight edge over Waters, though I think Waters sliding over to right field wouldn’t be a bad thing either, especially considering Waters ranked 9th overall in arm strength a season ago, according to Savant.
The big question will be hitting, as both hitters offer potential, but obvious flaws.
Both hitters struggle with “swing and miss” issues, as Isbel struck out 27 percent of the time last year in 278 plate appearances and Waters struck out 36.7 percent of the time in 109 plate appearances. Waters is better at drawing walks than Isbel, as his 11 percent walk rate was nearly double Isbel’s a season ago.
Conversely, Isbel is more adept at making contact, as his 80.6 percent contact rate was much better than Waters’ 71.3 percent mark in 2022. Isbel needs to get better at improving his average launch angle (10.6 degrees) though so he can make more productive contact (4.6 barrel rate), like Waters (12.3 percent barrel rate) did last season.
It is likely both players could be in the starting lineup on Opening Day, especially since they offer a lot of plus tools defensively. That said, how they hit this Spring could also determine who emerges in center field if Quatraro and the Royals only want to utilize one of them in the starting lineup for now.
Backup Catcher: MJ Melendez vs. Freddy Fermin
Roster Resource lists Fermin as the backup catcher, which essentially gives the Royals three catching options along with Salvador Perez and MJ Melendez.
The fact of the matter is that Salvy is going to be the Royals’ everyday catcher. He is the Royals’ best slugging hitter for now, and he has a good rapport and respect with the pitching staff as well. Of course, his framing is a question mark, and with Witt now emerging as the face of the franchise, I wonder how long Salvy will want to stay in Kansas City (I think he will be a Royal for at least a couple of more seasons due to his contract). Nonetheless, as long as Salvy is healthy, he will be behind the plate most days.
The main question is this: do the Royals want to carry three catchers and make Melendez a full-time outfielder/DH? Or do they want to carry three catchers like they did at times last year, but with Sebastian Rivero instead of Freddy Fermin?
It seems like the Royals have discussed the possibility of Melendez playing regularly in the outfield, as evidenced in this Melendez interview with 610’s Josh Vernier (which he did along with Massey):
Furthermore, Fermin has a much more positive outlook than Rivero as a possible backup, especially on the hitting end of things.
Rivero was pretty much an all-glove, no-offense catcher, and it makes sense why the Royals’ designated him for assignment this offseason. As for Fermin, he hit 15 home runs and posted a 123 wRC+ 87 games and 348 plate appearances with the Storm Chasers in 2022. He also impressed in the Venezuelan Winter League, as he hit .404 with four home runs in 45 games and 193 plate appearances with Leones del Caracas.
Will the Royals give Fermin a shot to play once or twice a week to spell Salvy behind the dish, which will allow Melendez to develop in the outfield? Or will Picollo and Quatraro opt to keep Fermin in Omaha, and have Melendez absorb that backup catcher role, in an effort to give them another utility player or two off the bench?
If Fermin hits well at the plate and thrives defensively behind the plate this Spring, he could certainly make his case that he deserves a spot on the Opening Day roster, especially since Melendez didn’t offer much defensively at catcher in 2022.
Backup Infielder: Matt Duffy vs. Johan Camargo vs. Samad Taylor
It’s our first three-way battle! And this could be an interesting one considering two of these three (Duffy and Camargo) will be non-roster invites to Spring Training (which means that they do not have a guaranteed spot on the 40-man roster).
The Royals have often acquired a Minor League free-agent infielder in previous offseasons to see if they could get some productive utility value at an affordable price. Sometimes it has worked out, like Hanser Alberto for example. Sometimes it hasn’t (Matt Reynolds and Ivan Castillo).
The Royals are hoping that either Duffy or Camargo could be another Alberto-esque success story.
Based on the past three years of data, Duffy looks like a better option, though Camargo did outperform Duffy in 2022 (0.4 fWAR to Duffy’s -0.1 fWAR).
I feel like Duffy has the inside track over Camargo for two reasons:
1.) He’s more of a natural fielder at third base. With Dozier slated to be the Royals’ Opening Day third baseman, they need someone who can handle the position when Dozier has a day off.
2.) Duffy played for the Rays for 2.5 seasons, which means that Quatraro and bench coach Paul Hoover are both familiar with what he can do offensively and defensively in a utility role.
Nonetheless, Camargo has a bit more power upside (.111 ISO since 2019 compared to Duffy’s .079 mark), and he has been hurt by batted ball luck more than Duffy as well (.261 BABIP compared to Duffy’s .334 BABIP). If the Royals are looking for a guy who could roam around the infield and possibly outfield, then Camargo may be a better fit than Duffy.
While the focus this Spring may be mostly on Duffy and Camargo, Royals fans shouldn’t forget about Taylor, who was recently acquired last year from Toronto in the Whit Merrifield deal. I talked about Taylor’s outlook a lot in my last prospect “Tier” post, as I ranked him as the 22nd-best prospect in the Royals system, according to my 2023 rankings.
I think Taylor offers a lot more, especially at the hot corner, than some Royals fans may think. He definitely has some power-speed potential, which could make him a good infielder to come off the bench in either a utility role or in situations that require pinch-running and/or late-inning defense in the infield.
It’s not of the question to think, with his skill set, that he could hold off both Camargo and Duffy this Spring, and be an under-the-radar pick to make the Royals’ Opening Day roster. He offers a lot more long-term upside than either NRI player after all.
Groundball Reliever: Jose Cuas vs. Collin Snider vs. Nick Wittgren
The rotation battle will be interesting this Spring, and I talked about it a little bit in my last post that mostly focused on Jon Heasley and his outlook in 2023. That said, the bullpen will have some more crucial battles, especially since it is possible that a productive reliever from 2022 could be the odd person out this Spring when it comes to making the Opening Day roster.
Based on the projected bullpen from Roster Resource, it is likely that the Royals will require a reliever who can effectively serve as a groundball specialist. And thus, it seems possible that either Cuas, Snider, or Wittgren, a non-roster invite who played last year in St. Louis, could fill that role in 2023.
All three relievers have their positives and share of flaws, as Royals fans can see in the data from 2022, via Fangraphs.
Cuas has the most strikeout upside of the three, as he post an 8.12 K/9, and also generated a 3.58 ERA, which was the best mark of the three. But his xERA (4.34) and xFIP (4.88) suggest that he may have been a bit lucky in 2022, and his high BB/9 wasn’t exactly promising either (especially since his BB/9 in the Minors was consistently low).
Royals fans will be rooting for Cuas to earn a roster spot this Spring, especially considering his inspirational story of switching from a position player to a pitcher and actually working for FedEx for a while before finally making it in the Major League last season. His story was not just appreciated by the Kansas City faithful, but baseball fans all over, as he earned the Tony Conigliaro award last year.
As for Snider, he was a surprise addition to the Opening Day roster in 2022, and he started off well with a 3.24 ERA in 8.1 IP in April. Unfortunately, he struggled for the remainder of the season, got optioned to Omaha a couple of times, and finished 6.55 ERA in 42 appearances and 34.1 IP for the Royals.
Nonetheless, Snider seemed to thrive in a “groundball specialist” role due to his sinker-slider combo. Snider’s slider has been rated as a solid offering by Eno Sarris’ “Stuff +” metric, and when he located it well last season, it was a nightmare for opposing hitters.
Of the three, Snider actually had a better xFIP (4.48) than bother Cuas (4.88) and Wittgren (5.12) in 2022. Thus, if pitching coach Brian Sweeney and assistant pitching coach Zach Bove can help Snider with his command and his other two pitches (sinker and changeup), then it’s possible that Snider could emerge on the Opening Day roster as that right-hander who can get out of jams by generating groundball double-play outs.
Lastly, Wittgren is another arm who could fill in this role, especially since he seemed to thrive in the middle innings with Cleveland from 2019 to 2021. Sweeney is familiar with Wittgren from their days together in the Guardians organization and the Royals would have not picked him up if Sweeney didn’t think Wittgren has something left in the tank.
Much like Snider, Wittgren showcases a pretty nasty slider, though it was far more effective back in 2021 when he was in the Cleveland organization.
Of the three, the 31-year-old is best at limiting home runs, as his 2.7 HR/FB rate was better than Cuas’ (6.7 percent) and Snider’s (11.1 percent). Keeping the ball in the yard is an especially important priority this offseason for the bullpen, and Kauffman’s spacious grounds should help Wittgren keep that rate just as low, if not lower, should he make the Opening Day roster this Spring.
If Wittgren does make the Opening Day roster, it is likely that either Cuas or Snider will get designated for assignment to make room for Wittgren on the 40-man.
Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
9 thoughts on “Five Royals Position Battles Worth Paying Attention to in Spring Training”
2B and CF are definitely the headline battles. Hopefully Massey is ready to make it a moot point at 2B, & regardless of who wins the CF job, I feel like we’ll probably see both those guys out there a lot in some capacity. The backup C might be the most interesting. With Salvy there, I was thinking I’d rather see MJ commit to LF full time, but after recently listening to Keith Law make a strong case for MJ being the main C, I’m kinda torn. He’s got so much natural talent and value at the position, even if he didn’t necessarily show it last season. But it doesn’t really matter, because they’re not moving Salvy. Whether they should or not is another discussion. Believe me, as a fan, I don’t want Salvy out, but then again, I’m not paid the big bucks to make the decisions that hurt.
I also noticed you didn’t include 3B. Does that mean you think it’s foregone conclusion that Dozier will be the starter out of camp?
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I think it’s Massey’s job to lose but I could see Nicky getting it if Massey struggles. Massey was a bit up and down last year and the K rate worries me. However, I think he has way more upside than Nicky and I think the org realizes that and wants to do all they can to ensure that he succeeds.
Also I agree about the cf and c situations. Regardless of who is there on Opening day, both Isbel and Waters will get time. And I have a feeling that Royals don’t want to get away from MJ at c just yet. I still think they treat him like Varsho and give him some opportunities to ensure if he can handle the position or if they need to move on. Yes Salvy is there but you never know with Salvy’s age and health. That said, I think Fermin is much better than people are giving him credit for.
And yeah I think Doz is at 3B on opening day and it’s his job to lose. They want him traded but his value is so low now. I think they’re hoping he can get on a heater like Santana and they can trade him by June. With Witt established at SS, I don’t see a whole lot greater options than Doz. Even eaton would be better served in Of honestly
Mr. O’B, can we take the decision to start Dozier off at third as anything other than:
a) they’re not really serious about competing
b) it’s just showcasing him
c) one last chance to prove his contract wasn’t a huge mistake?
I think you can argue between A and B for sure, though I think B is definitely the bigger one. They’ve been actively shopping him this offseason and they haven’t gotten any kind of bite in terms of the offer. If they bench him, that’s only going to torpedo his value and they will essentially have to DFA him at that point. I think their best opportunity would be to do something similar to what they did with Carlos Santana last year: play him, hope he gets hot, and trade him when his value is the highest. Dozier certainly has his problems, but he can be streaky, and I think he could convince a contending team he could fit in a platoon role if he can somewhat get back to where he was in ’19 and 20.
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