Three Royals Players to Watch For This Spring After Waters’ Injury Announcement

One of the challenging realities of Spring Training is that players get injured, which deflates their outlook for the upcoming season. The Royals haven’t played in any Cactus League games yet, but that didn’t stop the injury bug from finding a few of the Royals players in camp, as reported today by Royals beat writer Anne Rogers.

The Waters news is a bit of a gut punch for the Royals this Spring. It is even more challenging to stomach when thinking about Waters’ strong finish to the 2022 season, and the offseason trade of Michael A. Taylor to the Minnesota Twins to clear the way for Waters and Kyle Isbel to compete for the Opening Day centerfield position.

If that wasn’t enough, Rogers also announced a couple of other injuries to other Royals players currently at camp, even those these two players (Angel Zerpa and Brewer Hicklen) were longshots to make the Opening Day roster (especially compared to Waters).

So with this recent news, let’s take a look at a quick takeaway from the recent injury news to the Royals outfielder and three players who could possibly benefit while Waters recovers from an injury that could linger longer than expected (it affected Jorge Soler in 2020 and Adalberto Mondesi in 2021).

Immediate Takeaways

Before I look at three players who will get a more thorough look in the outfield due to Waters’ injury, let’s go over some takeaways that Royals fans should have after the news of this move broke this morning.

First off, this injury probably solidifies Franmil Reyes on the Opening Day roster as the club’s designated hitter, and he is off to a good start in his first couple of days in camp, looking much slimmer than a season ago with Cleveland and Chicago.

Reyes certainly carries some risk after a down season. However, with Waters out, the Royals need all their outfielders currently on the 40-man roster to see some time in the field. Waters’ injury also puts more pressure on Melendez to play in the outfield, especially since they will need his bat as much as possible in the lineup (which is amplified even more when Royals fans take a look at his ZiPS projections).

Second, it’s going to take a lot of Kyle Isbel to lose the job this Spring.

Yes, Picollo and the Royals are mentioning Olivares, Nate Eaton, and Samad Taylor as players who could get “looks” in Arizona in centerfield. That being said, Waters was really the only serious candidate to challenge Isbel for the Opening Day centerfield position going into Spring Training, and with Waters out of the equation, something dramatic would have to happen for Isbel NOT to be out there in center field at Kauffman Stadium on March 30th against the Twins.

With these takeaways being known, let’s take a look at three players who Royals fans should be paying attention to closely, as they could snag either bench outfield spots on the active roster or possibly starting gigs, depending on how their respective campaigns go in Cactus League play.

Nate Eaton

Going into this Spring, I thought Eaton was a pretty sure bet to make the Opening Day roster as a utility player off the bench.

A 21st-round pick in 2018, Eaton played multiple outfield positions in his rookie season in 2022 and even saw some time at third base, which looks pretty shallow considering that Hunter Dozier is the favorite to be at the position on Opening Day on March 30th. While it seemed farfetched initially to think of Eaton as a regular starting outfield candidate, it seemed plausible that he could be a guy who could play 2-4 times a week, play great defense, hit with occasional gap pop (especially at the K), and be an absolute menace on the basepaths.

In the wake of Waters’ injury announcement, Eaton is now being projected to be the Royals’ starting right fielder, according to Roster Resource. On a defensive end, that move would make a lot of sense, especially since right field was his best position, according to Baseball Savant.

Last year, Eaton produced an OAA of +2 in right field, which was by far his best mark at any position he played last year. Also, based on his OAA visual via Savant, there is a lot of bright red in right field, which is a sign of how effective and successful he was in that position last season.

The main question that could determine whether or not Eaton could be an everyday option in right field in 2023 and beyond is this:

Will he hit enough?

The slash isn’t bad from last year, as he posted a .264/.331/.387 mark with a 109 wRC+ in 122 plate appearances. However, he struck out 24.6 percent of the time and only posted a BB/K ratio of 0.33, according to Fangraphs. His average exit velocity on batted balls was also only 85.8 MPH, which not only ranked in the 28th percentile of the league but was also the third-worst mark for Royals hitters last year, according to Savant.

But then again, his average EV was actually better than Waters’ last year (84.1 MPH). So it’s possible that Waters may not be that much of an upgrade, especially if his BABIP regresses sharply (.353 last year).

If Eaton can provide line drive hits, efficient baserunning, and a good glove in right field this Spring, then don’t be surprised to see Eaton manning the position on Opening Day on March 30th.

This wouldn’t be the first time he’s proven naysayers wrong before.

Edward Olivares

I haven’t talked much about Olivares lately on this blog because I wasn’t sure what kind of role he would have in 2023.

On one hand, there’s a lot to like from Olivares’ 2022 campaign.

Though he only played 53 games due to injury, he slashed .283/.333/.410 and also added four home runs and 24 runs scored. In addition, he posted a 110 wRC+ and .326 wOBA in only 174 plate appearances, and his .339 xwOBA hints that he could have done more with more at-bats in 2022, according to Fangraphs.

When looking at his xwOBA rolling chart from last year, via Savant, Olivares proved that he could be an above-average hitter in this category through the course of the season, which wasn’t always the case in 2020 and 2021.

ZiPS also looks on Olivares’ outlook this season favorably, though more as a utility outfielder rather than a regular DH, which Roster Resource was somewhat predicting prior to the Waters injury. ZiPS is projecting a 104 wRC+ and 1.1 fWAR for Olivares in 2023, which would be welcomed by the Royals lineup and fanbase, especially in a utility outfield role.

With Waters out, Olivares could perhaps compete for an outfield spot, though left field may be the better option considering Olivares’ defensive shortcomings. Last year, he posted a -4 OAA in right field, according to Baseball Savant, and it hasn’t been much better in 2021 (-2 OAA) or 2020 (+1 OAA).

Olivares ranked in the 82nd percentile in arm strength and 83rd percentile in sprint speed last year, according to Savant, so he has the raw tools to succeed. Unfortunately, he struggles with poor instincts and routes in the outfield, which is a big reason why DH or left field may be a better option for him in 2023.

It will be interesting to see if Melendez and Olivares perhaps rotate in left field, especially since they both struggled defensively in the outfield in 2022 (thus keeping their “bad” defensive outfielders in one place). If Reyes proves he can prove this Sprinig that he can be the regular DH in 2023, then a platoon role may be in Olivares’ future (with Olivares taking time in left field when Melendez needs to catch).

That said, if Melendez splits the DH position with Reyes, with Melendez getting a majority of starts against right-handed starters? Then it’s possible Olivares could be the regular left fielder in 2023 for the Royals.

Of course, that is if Olivares stays healthy and continues to hit this Spring like he did in 2022.

Samad Taylor

It was intriguing to see Taylor’s name mentioned in Rogers’ tweet, especially since I didn’t think he would seriously challenge for a roster spot this Spring, let alone a utility spot with some time in the outfield. After all, I only ranked him as the 22nd-best prospect in the Royals system, categorizing him in the “Fringe Regular” Tier of my rankings.

But then again, the Royals added Taylor to the 40-man roster for a reason (if they didn’t think he could play, they would’ve left him exposed in the Rule 5 Draft). And while he did struggle in the Arizona Fall League this autumn, he did show some power potential at times against baseball’s best pitching prospects (and this was despite missing the end of the Minor League season due to injury).

Taylor doesn’t come with a whole lot of fanfare or prospect hype, but he’s the kind of player the Royals love (i.e. tools galore), and a deeper dive into his numbers from last year showcases a guy who could be really valuable for the Royals off the bench if healthy.

In Double-A in 2021, Taylor slashed .294/.385/.503 with a 141 wRC+ and hit 16 home runs, and stole 30 bases in 87 games and 374 plate appearances. Last year in Triple-A Buffalo, though he only played in 70 games, he showed some improvements in his plate approach, despite decreases in batting average (.258) and power (.168 ISO).

His strikeout rate dropped from 29.4 percent in 2021 to 22.1 percent in 2022, and his BB/K ratio increased from 0.38 to 0.45, respectively as well. He also swiped 23 bags and still hit nine home runs, not bad considering the fewer number of games and plate appearances he had in Buffalo last season.

Defensively Taylor shows all the tools to be a guy who could handle not only the corners but perhaps centerfield as well. He is built a lot like Isbel (5’10, 160 frame for Taylor), and it’s easy to forget that Isbel was drafted as an infielder out of UNLV. While the former Blue Jays prospect has played mostly in the infield over the course of his career, he has spent some time in the outfield recently, especially in the Australian Baseball League last winter with Brisbane.

Taylor won’t have much time to prove himself in the outfield in Cactus League play. Despite his potential, I still think it’s likely that he could be sent down to start the year to get more time and practice in the outfield in Omaha (which could be beneficial to the Storm Chasers with Hicklen also expected to miss considerable time).

Nonetheless, he’s a sleeper type for the Royals this Spring, and Waters being out could give him an opportunity to prove he was worth acquiring from the Blue Jays in the Whit Merrifield trade last August.

Photo Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images


2 thoughts on “Three Royals Players to Watch For This Spring After Waters’ Injury Announcement

  1. Let me be clear, I would obviously prefer Waters was healthy. Not only is he one of the prospects I’m most excited to get a look at, but now I really wonder what they’ll do if Isbel goes down. CF went from a bit of a logjam to potentially exposing their lack of depth real quick. Not that I’m regretting the MAT trade- that’s just how it goes.

    That said, I like the idea of Reyes getting a longer look. I’m definitely not willing to bet the farm on him turning it around, but his possibilities as a reclamation project intrigue me more than most.

    As for MJ playing more in the OF, I’m not sure where I come down on that. But considering I don’t think there’s any chance they’re moving on from Salvy anytime soon- another thing that causes no small amount of inner conflict in my fan’s mind- maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

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