Royals players have now been in camp for a full week, which means there has been a LOT of pitcher-covering-first-base drills. This week, teams have begun playing actual games that keep score and everything, even if they don’t count in the standings. It is just one week, but what have we learned about the Royals from the first week in camp?
Some players are in the best shape of their life
Spring represents a fresh slate for players, and a chance to improve their physique. While “best shape in his life” stories are a bit cliché at this point, it is better to see players come into camp with more muscles rather than showing up with a beer gut and a cigarette hanging out of their mouth.
Brian Goodwin reshaped his body over the off-season and dropped his body fat from 16 percent to 9 percent. Danny Duffy worked on his core to get his arm strength back after missing the end of last year with a shoulder injury. And perhaps most encouraging is that Kyle Zimmer is on a mound throwing after working out at the Driveline Academy. Meanwhile Alex Gordon gave up weights, thinking they were putting too much wear and tear on his body. I guess Alex is finally following my workout habits.
Ian Kennedy is not a lock for the rotation
Ned Yost has shown a deference to veterans, and the Royals are paying Ian Kennedy a boatload of money, so despite back-to-back underwhelming seasons, it seemed as if he was a lock for the rotation. But Yost was quite blunt about Kennedy, saying the team was “mulling” moving the 34-year old right-hander to the bullpen.
It is possible that Yost’s statement was made to light a fire under the veteran, who seemed to have mixed feelings about the possibility of being demoted to a relief role. But it could also reveal how dedicated the Royals are to going with youth this year. Moving Kennedy to the bullpen could allow a longer look at younger pitchers like Jorge Lopez and Heath Fillmyer. And Kennedy could find more success out of the pen, especially considering how terrible he was when he faced a lineup the second time. The rotation will likely feature Danny Duffy, Brad Keller, and Jakob Junis, but there may be more questions marks after than than we originally thought when camp began.
The Royals’ catching depth looks really good
Royals fans have been blessed to have an All-Star, Gold Glove catcher behind the plate for the last seven seasons with Salvador Perez. Salvy’s rocket arm, power bat, and infectious smile have made him one of the game’s more valuable backstops and a fan favorite.
But one day Salvy will no longer be behind the plate for Kansas City (I imagine he’ll be roaming the city, looking for pickup games he can catch). While that will be a loss for Kansas City, the future at the position looks very bright. Royals fans got a glimpse of Meibrys Viloria last season, when he was aggressively promoted to the big leagues in September after a solid season in Wilmington. And while he may be in big league camp just to help catch all those pitchers, he is turning some heads with his bat too.
Viloria may be pushed in the system by M.J. Melendez, who some have ranked as the top prospect in the system. Melendez showed prodigious power at a very young age, smacking 19 home runs at age 19 for Lexington last year. And being in big league camp didn’t seem to phase him, as he smacked a home run in a split squad game against White Sox pitcher Carson Fulmer on Tuesday.
In addition to those two, the Royals have 20-year old Venezuelan catcher Sebastian Rivero. He is considered a glove-first player who has held his own with the bat and could improve as his body matures. The Royals have a terrific mentor for these young catchers, who could really benefit quite a bit being around all these big leaguers.
Bubba Starling could be back on the radar
There are a lot of reason not to get very excited about spring training stats (remember Cactus League MVP Peter O’Brien?) But it is better to play well than not play well, and early signs from former top prospect Bubba Starling are encouraging. Sure, we’ve all been teased like this before, and it is literally two games, but Starling has already smacked two home runs and a double in six at-bats.
At the very least it is good to see the kid healthy and swinging the bat, after missing most of last year with an oblique injury and a freak finger injury. I’m not saying to go all-in on Bubba Starling stock, but with an unsettled outfield situation, there is a window of opportunity for Bubba. We’re all rooting for him to make the most of it.
We’re going to see a lot of Chris Owings
The Royals inked utility player Chris Owings pretty early in the off-season, a low-cost move to add some depth. After having to pick up guys off the waiver wire to fill out the roster last season, it made sense to bring in someone capable of playing all over the field.
What was less expected was seeing Owings as a regular player, but that seems to be what Ned Yost is planning this year. It may seem odd to try to shoehorn a 27-year old coming off a 51 wRC+ season into the lineup on a regular basis. However it may also give us an indication on how the Royals plan to set their roster.
Having a super-utility guy like Owings means the Royals already have a reserve at virtually every position on the field. This could make it easier to carry a pinch-running specialist like Terrance Gore, who was re-signed to a Major League deal this winter. In fact, the bench could be just Owings, Gore, and backup catcher Cam Gallagher, which could allow the team to carry up to 13 pitchers. Maybe we don’t want to see Owings in the lineup every day, but having him on the roster allows for a lot more flexibility.
The Royals are slowly trying to ease into modern baseball
Many teams are using data any way they can to find a competitive edge. The Royals may have more of an old school approach, but they do seem to be using some modern tools to help them squeeze every ounce of talent out of their roster. Like 27 other teams and many college and high school squads, the Royals now use a Rapsodo 2.0, a device that helps track data from pitchers and hitters. From the data collected, teams like the Royals can look for tendencies, correct mechanical flaws, and evaluate things like spin rate and release points.
While Ned Yost may be old school, many of his coaches like Cal Eldred, Vance Wilson, and Pedro Grifol have embraced analytics. The Royals also hired former minor league pitcher Malcom Culver to serve as an intermediary between the analytics department and on-field staff, similar to the role pitching guru Brian Bannister plays in Boston.
Yost has also indicated he will be more flexible about the bullpen this year, instead of adhering to rigid roles, and may even be open to “bullpenning.” Last year the team employed defensive shifts more than all but four teams, even as Ned Yost expressed some skepticism to the strategy. The Royals will be aggressive on the basepaths this year, which may seem contrary to analytics, but they insist they have the stamp of approval from their analytics department.
“[Our analytical people] don’t buck us. They don’t say ‘Don’t steal!’ and ‘Don’t bunt!’ A lot of those people want to almost outlaw it and completely eliminate it from the game. Our analytical people don’t think that way. They know our style of play.”
Pitchers still get hurt
It happens every year. Pitchers are made to get broken. For now, the pitching staff is still reasonably healthy, but there are some minor concerns. Jesse Hahn, who missed all of last season with a UCL injury, will be out until June. Trevor Oaks, a 25-year old right-hander who was Omaha’s best pitcher last year, has a right hip injury and may need surgery to repair a torn labrum that could cost him at least half the season. And Danny Duffy is dealing with minor tightness that will cause him to be shut down for a few days. While he shrugs it off as normal tightness, his injury history and velocity drop will have Royals fans on pins and needles, hoping his shoulder is healthy enough to make the Opening Day start on March 28.
What have you taken away from the first week of spring training?