The baseball games have begun in sunny September and already there are a few players turning heads in Royals camp. We know that spring training performances shouldn’t matter that much, but that doesn’t mean you want to have a bad pre-season. An awful spring training got veteran outfielder Brian Goodwin cut last year, and no one ever heard of him again (pay no attention to that 2.1 WAR season in Anaheim).
The players may have a bit of a fresh slate with manager Mike Matheny, so who really needs to impress him in March?
Phillips has always had the glove to be a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder, but the bat hasn’t developed the way the Royals would like. With his glove, even modest offensive numbers would make him a valuable player, but a 36 percent strikeout rate in the big leagues have kept him from sticking so far. Phillips seems to understand the urgency of the situation, telling Jeffrey Flanagan, “It’s the biggest camp of all for me.” The 25-year old is out of options, but if the Royals are really going through a youth movement, they should take a long look at the outfielder they acquired in the Mike Moustakas trade to see if he can figure out any semblance of offense.
One of the players that has impressed in the first few games is Bubba Starling. He smacked his second home run on Wednesday against the White Sox, adding a double, and is 5-for-10 with a stolen base in his first week of action. But David Lesky has to bring us back to reality.
Bubba Starling hit .344/.432/.625 last spring.— David Lesky (@DBLesky) February 26, 2020
Bubba went on to perform adequately in Triple-A, but hit just .215/.255/.317 in 59 games with the Royals. Starling always seems to hit well in the hot, dry air of Surprise, going 3-for-11 with a home run in 2018 as well. Like Phillips, Starling is out of options, but Bubba is also two years older. Teams will carry at least four bench players this year due to expanded rosters, which could help the Royals carry Phillips and Starling, but if they have to choose between one or the other, could it come down to their spring performance?
I'm not sure either has a certain future, but I'm also not sure what Phillips does better than Starling.— Sam Mellinger (@mellinger) February 25, 2020
I don’t think the urgency is quite as dire for O’Hearn as it is for Starling and Phillips. O’Hearn has at least showed some terrific potential against MLB pitching, hitting .262/.353/.597 in 44 games in 2018 with 12 home runs, although he followed it up with a very disappointing season in 2019. He has options remaining, so if the Royals need him to tweak some things in the Pacific Coast League, he can at least stay in the organization.
But the addition of Ryan McBroom at least gives him competition at first base. It seems like first base is O’Hearn’s job to lose, but he could lose it. And if he loses it, there are no guarantees he ever gets another opportunity. The Royals have always seemed to favor athletic, defensive-minded first basemen who hit for contact, which O’Hearn is not, so their patience with him could be pretty short if he doesn’t hit.
Let’s put it this way, if you’re a veteran and you can’t earn a spot in this Royals bullpen, you should probably consider hangin’ ‘em up. Holland’s velocity is way down from his first stint with the Royals and his control has been erratic. He was able to retire all three hitters in both of his outings this week, so the results have been encouraging so far. There will likely be a heavy dose of nostalgia working his favor, as well as a preference for veterans, so if Holland can show he is healthy and able to retire hitters, he should make the team ahead of his March 26 opt-out. But if he can’t make the team, this could be the end of his career.
Sparkman has showed glimpses of competence, such as when he threw the team’s only complete game shutout last year against the White Sox. But with a 6.02 ERA overall last season, it was clear he didn’t have the consistency to cut it in the rotation. The Royals think he can have more success in the bullpen, and an increase in velocity by working shorter stints could make him more effective. But the Royals aren’t likely to have this many open spots in the bullpen for long (at least, we hope so), so if he is going to transition his career into “MLB reliever”, this is the time to do so.
Like Sparkman, López can show flashes of brilliance, like his near perfect game against the Twins. While scouts have raved about his stuff, López has yet to translate it into results, at least with the Royals. The team hoped a move to the bullpen would improve his results, but the improvement was marginal, and certainly not good enough to stick in a Major League pen. López is out of options now, and with the Royals wary of “inventory”, they seem likely to keep him even if he has a poor spring. But a bad spring will only add to the piling data that López is just not a very good big league pitcher, which could lead to a pretty short leash once the season begins.