It is hard to watch the post-season this season without a twinge of nostalgia for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Playoff baseball is awesome, and now that Royals fans know what success in the playoffs feels like, the experience is sorely missed.
It seems like the Royals are on the right path and can at least hope to contend for a playoff spot in the next few seasons. What will they look like when they make it? Will it feature familiar faces from this season or will we have to wait for the young crop of minor leaguers to carry the team? Will there be new faces from outside the organization like when the Royals brought in guys like James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas, and Kendrys Morales to help the team get to the post-season?
This exercise is for fun, so we won’t hold you to these predictions. But I want you to close your eyes. Feel the crisp October air at Kauffman Stadium. Hear 40,000 fans yelling at the top of their lungs. Listen to the dulcet tones of Joe Buck lavish praise on our opponents. It is October. Always. The starting lineup is about to be announced. Who is in it?
Here’s my crack at it. The year is 2023 - I’ll be optimistic, this is my post-season dream. The Central Division-winning Royals are taking on the Montreal Rays at GEHA Field at Kauffman Stadium. Here is Mike Matheny’s starting lineup:
Catcher - Salvador Perez
It’s gotta be Salvy. The face of the franchise will be 33 by May of 2023, but he shows no signs of slowing down after leading the league in home runs this year. His framing and blocking may be slipping a bit, but they are still acceptable and his arm is as good as ever. There will be some calls to ease him into a DH role to get MJ Melendez to the big league level, but frankly Salvy is much more valuable behind the plate.
I think the Royals love Melendez and it will hurt them a lot to trade him, but if Dayton Moore is being more “transactional”, it makes much more sense to trade from a position of strength to address other needs. I expect Melendez to get dealt in a big trade to get the Royals over the hump.
First Base - Nick Pratto
Okay Vinnie Pasquantino stans, I get your guy put up a super interesting season in regards to a power/contact combo. But we all know Nick Pratto is going to get first shot at first base due to his pedigree if nothing more, and frankly he has earned it too with one of the best minor league comebacks in recent club history. Pratto is going to strike out a ton but he could also be the most patient Royals hitting prospect we’ve had since Dayton Moore arrived. He smacked 36 home runs this year, but I’m not sure he’s going to be a big-time home run hitter at the big league level, maybe more like Eric Hosmer with more walks and fewer groundouts.
Second Base - Whit Merrifield
Whit is going to be a favorite to win a Gold Glove this year at second base, which really should end any conversation of moving him back to the outfield, where his defensive results have been much more mixed. His bat plays better at second base, and he seems to prefer that as his natural position. There’s no question Whit will decline by 2023, the question is if he can manage a graceful decline. His defensive improvement offset his offensive decline this year, so there’s hope he can continue to be a very valuable player the next two seasons.
The 2023 season will be Whit’s last under contract, so it will be interesting to see what the Royals do with him after that. After taking such a below-market deal with them, he’ll likely want to cash in. But he’ll also be 35 years old for the 2024 season, typically not when teams sign guys to lucrative deals.
Shortstop - Nicky Lopez
I’ve been a Nicky Lopez fan since he was a minor leaguer, but not even the most optimistic Lopez fan saw this season coming. I never imagined he could handle shortstop the way he did, but he amazed fans with dazzling plays and an arm strong enough to stick at the position. He also stayed within himself and took a high-contact approach that enabled him to become the first Royals shortstop ever to hit .300 in a season.
We should probably expect some regression from Nicky, but he was a 4.4 WAR player, according to Fangraphs, so even some regression will mean he’s a pretty valuable player. The Royals have options here at shortstop, but Nicky has earned the right to stick here.
Third Base - Bobby Witt, Jr.
Much of this 2023 post-season scenario really hinges on whether Bobby Witt, Jr. comes even close to living up to the expectations so many have already put on his young shoulders. Witt has done nothing but raise expectations after a dominating season in Double-A and Triple-A that has earned him numerous Minor League Player of the Year honors. Witt doesn’t have to be the next baseball messiah, but he probably has to at least become an All-Star-caliber player for the Royals to reach the post-season by 2023. With his power, speed, defense, and poise, there is a lot of reason for Royals fans to be optimistic.
Left field - Bryan Reynolds
Andrew Benintendi can explore free agency after the 2022 season and I don’t really expect him to stick around. He came on strong at the end of this season after a rib injury caused him to miss time and slump during the summer. Maybe he really enjoys his time in Kansas City, maybe the Royals will be willing to pay more than anyone else to keep him, but I’m not terribly optimistic he’ll re-sign here.
The depth the Royals have built in the farm system will allow them to go out and make trades for young players to supplement the roster and I think Bryan Reynolds would be a great player to target. Reynolds brings a patient approach without striking out much, and he hits for average with good gap power that could play well in Kauffman Stadium. The defensive metrics are mixed on him in centerfield, but observers in Pittsburgh seem to think he’s a terrific defender. His numbers may improve with a move to left field. Reynolds would still be just 28 years old by 2023, and isn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2025 season, so it would take a lot to get him, but Melendez and a pitching prospect could get the Pirates interested.
Center field - Manny Margot
Margot has been patrolling the outfield for the Rays the last two post-seasons, but will hit free agency by 2023, and could be a target of the Royals. He played right field for the Rays only because they already had Kevin Kiermaier in center, but he has plenty of experience in center and has played quite well there. Since 2017, only seven centerfielders with at least 1,000 innings there have a better Defensive Runs Above Average according to Fangraphs.
Margot is a below-average hitter, but he draws some walks, doesn’t strike out much, and can steal a few bases. He’ll only be 28 by Opening Day of 2023, so he could a lot of suitors, but he won’t get a mega-deal and the Royals should be able to pay his price if they are willing to spend some money.
Right field - Lorenzo Cain
Okay hear me out, this is the Nori Aoki/Alex Rios memorial position. The Royals could never really figure out the right field position in their last post-season run, and with so few outfield prospects at the higher levels, I can see them going with a stop gap solution. Why not bringing back an old friend? Cain was still a valuable player this year for Milwaukee with 1.8 WAR in just 78 games, according to Fangraphs.
He’ll be 37 by 2023 and his bat is below-average, so he’ll likely be a part-time player by this point. The Royals could have him split time with Kyle Isbel, and if they really feel like right field needs a stronger solution, it could be a position to upgrade at the July trade deadline (Nick Castellanos could be an impending free agent by then). But the Royals have made a habit of bringing back old friends for reunions - Alcides Escobar, Jarrod Dyson, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland all came back for a second tour. Why not reunite Salvy with his hermano Lorenzo?
Designated hitter - Hunter Dozier
There is nowhere to really put Dozier on the field at this point, he’s proven himself to be a pretty poor defender at third and right field. He was pretty poor at the plate this year too, but a thumb injury derailed his season, and the Royals will likely give him a shot to resurrect his career and justify the four-year $25 million deal they signed him to last winter. By 2023, Dozier will be in the third year of that deal, so expect them to stick with him, but if he’s still not hitting he may sit at times in favor of someone like Pasquantino, and of course, Salvy will likely get plenty of time at DH as well.
Pitcher - Daniel Lynch
Lynch had some mixed results in his first season, but as a lefty that throws in the mid-90s with a plus change up and a nice slider, he showed enough to give fans hope he could be the ace this pitching staff needs. The way post-season staffs are being handled, Lynch would likely only need to go a few innings before Matheny can turn it over to his bullpen. We could see Brady Singer blossom in shorter stints out of the bullpen, where his lack of a third pitch won’t be exposed as much. Asa Lacy could by MLB-ready in 2023, perhaps getting eased in as a reliever. Josh Staumont, Scott Barlow, and Jake Brentz will all still be under club control by 2023 and could be late inning options. And don’t discount the possibility of Danny Duffy returning by then as a reliever.
What does your Royals post-season team look like?