For a team coming off 104-losses, the Royals enter this season with a surprisingly set lineup. Barring injury, we pretty much know seven of the starters will be. All-Star Salvador Perez will be behind the plate. Ryan O’Hearn will spend most of the time at first, although he may sit against some lefties. Whit Merrifield will still move around, but will start mostly at second. Wunderkind Adalberto Mondesi will start at shortstop. Hunter Dozier will get a crack at third. Alex Gordon and his Gold Glove will patrol left field. Speedy Billy Hamilton will roam center. Jorge Soler will likely spend most of his time at designated hitter.
That leaves right field as the position that is still up in the air at the outset of spring training. The Royals have had six different players start in right field on Opening Day in the last six years (Jorge Soler, Paulo Orlando, Reymond Fuentes, Alex Rios, Nori Aoki, and Jeff Francouer). It seems likely that a seventh different player will start this year. But who will be standing out there on March 28 against the White Sox? Let’s look at the candidates.
Amazingly, Bonifacio has the most Major League experience of the right field candidates with 182 games under his belt. He would seem to be the incumbent, having started 92 games in right for the Royals in 2017, his rookie season. He held his own, hitting .255/.320/.432 with 17 home runs in 422 plate appearances. However he was hit with an 80-game suspension the next year for testing postitive for Boldenone, a horse steroid.
When he returned, he was not the same hitter. He hit just four home runs in 270 plate appearances, and his ISO fell to .135. His hard-hit rate was actually up in his return in 2018, according to data from Statcast, as was his launch angle and flyball rate, but his exit velocity was down and the average distance of his flyballs fell from 325 feet in 2017 to 310 in 2018. The decline in numbers associated with strength following a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs may cause concerns that 2017 was a fluke.
Bonifacio is probably the poorest defender among the candidates to start in right field, and the club’s emphasis on getting back to speed and defense will work against him. He has an option year remaining so you could see the Royals sending him back to Omaha to figure out his swing.
I feel like Goodwin gets dismissed easily by a lot of Royals fans because injuries robbed us of a chance to see him much after he was acquired from the Nationals in July. Goodwin missed over two months last season with a wrist injury in April and a groin injury in August. But in 2017 with the Nationals he hit .251/.313/.498 with 13 home runs in 278 plate appearance in a part-time role - no Royals outfielder with at least 250 plate appearances has slugged that well in a season since Alex Gordon in 2011.
Goodwin can do a little bit of almost everything - play defense at all three positions, hit for some power, draw some walks, steal some bases. That may suit him more for a reserve role, particuarly since he likely won’t ever hit for much of an average. He was once considered a top prospect but has been very inconsistent, perhaps due to a lack of playing time. He could make for an adequate stop gap starter. with the possibility of breaking out with a chance to play everyday. Goodwin has come into camp in the best shape of his life, and is out of options, which gives him a leg up for making this team.
If the Royals really want to roll with their best defensive outfield on Opening Day, Brett Phillips will be the one standing with Gordon and Hamilton in the Kauffman Stadium outfield. The 24-year old put up terrific defensive numbers after he was acquired from the Brewers, displaying a cannon for an arm.
Phillips has flashed decent speed and power in the minors, but his big issue is making enough contact. He struck out 41% of the time in his 51 big league games last year, the second-highest strikeout rate out of any player with at least 100 plate appearances. His strikeouts weren’t a result of him swinging at everything - he was actually below league-average in how often he was offered at pitches. But when he did swing, he had trouble making contact - he was 22nd-worst out of all such hitters, making contact only 66.7% of the time he swung the bat.
He has come into this season looking to cut down on the whiffs, and his efforts to do so will have a big impact on whether or not he can stick as a big league regular. Phillips has an infectious smile and a goofy attitude that has already made him a fan favorite. But he will need to improve on his career line of .222/.291/.362 in 245 plate appearances to stay on the roster. Phillips has an option year remaining, so the Royals may want to see him make those improvements in Omaha to begin the year.
Others: Terrance Gore looks likely to be a pinch-running specialist, not someone who will make many starts in the outfield. Jorge Soler could play some right field, but his limited range and injury concerns will keep him confined mostly to designated hitter. Chris Owings is expected to play almost regularly all around the field, so don’t be too surprised if he gets the Opening Day assignment. Bubba Starling is off to a hot start this spring, but is no longer on the 40-man roster and will almost certainly begin the year in AAA after nearly a full season lost to injury.
Who should start in right field on Opening Day?
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