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Five battles to watch in spring training

The Royals will have some competition for spots on the 26-man roster.

Kansas City Royals second baseman Nicky Lopez (1) grounds out in the third inning against the Chicago Cubs at Sloan Park. Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

In a few weeks, the Kansas City Royals will head to Surprise, Arizona, for a highly anticipated spring training. Names such as Bobby Witt Jr., Asa Lacy, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Khalil Lee will have their opportunity to compete against major league talent. Carlos Santana will be wearing Royals uniform for the first time after spending 10 years blasting baseballs into the Kauffman Stadium fountains as a member of the Cleveland Indians. Brad Keller, Brady Singer, and Kris Bubic will look to anchor a rotation that showed stability last season.

For a team like the Royals, competition for playing time will be a focal point in March. With 26 spots to fill for the Opening Day roster, Kansas City has a few battles that will be worth keeping an eye on.

Nicky Lopez vs. Hanser Alberto

Up until February, Lopez seemed to be a lock for the starting job at second base. However, on Jan. 31, the Royals signed Alberto to a minor league contract with a non-roster invite to spring training. Alberto — for many reasons — is an every day major leaguer. The 28-year-old spent the last two seasons with Baltimore and slashed .299/.322/.413 with 15 home runs and 73 RBIs in 193 games. He’s known for putting the ball in play, as he posted the lowest walk rate in baseball at 2.7 percent and the second-lowest strikeout rate at 10.2 percent over the last two seasons. Alberto also mashes left-handed pitchers with a career .350 batting average in 350 plate appearances.

Lopez’s strength is in the field. The former fifth-round draft pick out of Creighton was an American League Gold Glove finalist for second base in 2020, but ultimately lost to Cleveland’s César Hernández. Lopez, who will turn 26 in March, led all second basemen in defensive runs saved last year. Royals manager Mike Matheny even said he “hadn’t seen anyone better” than Lopez at second base. But the issue for Lopez is his offense. He hovered just above the Mendoza Line (.200 batting average) in 2020 and has a career .279 on-base percentage.

There’s also a third option Matheny could choose in platooning Lopez and Alberto. However, Lopez has nearly identical splits against right-handers and left-handers.

Lopez’s splits

RH: .228/.277/.308

LH: .228/.286/.302

Alberto’s splits

RH: .237/.263/.328

LH: .350/.367/.464

Ryan O’Hearn vs. Ryan McBroom

Where have we heard this before? Well, one year ago it was for competition for the starting spot at first base. However, barring injury, that spot belongs to the veteran Carlos Santana for the foreseeable future, as Kansas City inked him to a two-year, $17.5-million deal in December. In 2021, the competition will be for providing depth.

O’Hearn, 27, has struggled to hit since his breakout season in 2018. Since smacking 12 home runs in 44 games in 2018, O’Hearn has hit .195 in back-to-back seasons with 16 home runs over 147 games. Last year, he posted a slugging percentage of .301, which was 296 points lower than his rookie year (.597). Though his power comes in spurts, O’Hearn provides the Royals with a left-handed bat off the bench in late-game situations.

If Kansas City is looking for dangerous bats off the bench, McBroom might’ve been one of the most impressive pinch hitters in baseball in 2020. The former West Virginia Mountaineer broke both the franchise single-season record for pinch-hit home runs as well as the career record — launching three pinch-hit home runs in an 18-day span. However, McBroom was optioned to the alternate site at the end of last season after a 1-for-20 stretch (.050 BA) from late August to early September. Similar to O’Hearn, McBroom can play first base and a corner outfield spot.

Edward Olivares vs. Nick Heath

This will be one of the quieter battles in spring training, but an important one. Olivares, who was acquired in a deal that sent Trevor Rosenthal to the Padres, flashed glimpses of being an every day center fielder in 2020. In 18 games with Kansas City, he slashed .274/.292/.419 with two home runs and seven RBIs. However, unless he thrashes opposing pitchers in Surprise, it appears that Michael A. Taylor has the inside shot for the starting job in center field. Despite a small sample size, you could make an argument that Olivares is a better hitter than Heath.

Heath is an attractive option off the bench for Kansas City — mainly due to his speed. That being said, it’s no secret that general manager Dayton Moore views speed and defense as high priorities on the roster. Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore made a living off mentally terrorizing pitchers on the base paths. Heath has that same ability, as he swiped 50 bags with Double-A Northwest Arkansas in 2019. Last season, Heath only stole two bases, but was hampered by a hamstring injury he suffered in August.

Wade Davis vs. Ervin Santana

Who would’ve guessed in 2013 that Wade Davis and Ervin Santana would still be wearing Royals uniforms in 2021? The answer...not many. Despite their long track record of success in the MLB, Davis and Santana will be fighting for one of the last spots in Kansas City’s bullpen. Davis is looking for a bounceback season after three abysmal years in Colorado — where he logged a 6.49 ERA in 124 games.

Last year, the Royals were 2-for-2 in reclamation projects. Both Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal were given minor league deals, made the roster and turned in stellar numbers in 2020. The Royals hope Davis can do the same thing.

Santana, on the other hand, is looking to make a comeback few would’ve anticipated in 2020. The 38-year-old last pitched in the majors in 2019 with the Chicago White Sox, but was designated for assignment after just three starts.

Kansas City took a flier on Santana, who was reported of throwing 95 mph in the Dominican Republic. In the 2020-21 Dominican Winter League, Santana posted a 2.61 ERA and 10.9 SO/9 in 20 23 innings with Tigres Del Licey.

Richard Lovelady vs. Daniel Tillo

The Royals are going to need a left-handed pitcher out of their bullpen. As of now, there are three left-handed relievers on the 40-man roster — Lovelady, Tillo and 21-year-old Angel Zerpa. Zerpa hasn’t pitched above rookie-ball, so it would be a stretch for him to break camp with the major league club.

Lovelady has had a strange couple of years with the Royals. He dominated through the minor leagues with a 2.17 ERA and rarely allowed home runs. But he’s struggled to stay in Kansas City the last two seasons with a combined 7.71 ERA and 1.905 WHIP in 21 innings. Lovelady won’t turn 26 until July, so the Royals might think the lefty still has time to showcase the success he’s had in the minors.

Tillo raised some eyebrows pitching for Team USA in the 2019 WBSC Premier 12. So much so, that Jon Morosi of MLB Network said Tillo looked like a cross between Tony Watson and Zack Britton.

The left-hander missed all of 2020 after having Tommy John surgery, but resumed throwing in January. There’s plenty to like about Tillo’s makeup. Prior to his injury, Tillo was ranging from 95-98 mph on his fastball and 88-89 on his slider in the 2019 Arizona Fall League. The question will be if Tillo can reach those numbers again coming off injury.