The Royals made their first round of cuts last week, reassigning a number of players to the minors. Most were players expected to begin, or play the entire season down on the farm.
Let’s look at some of the ramifications for the roster.
Cam Gallagher is the backup catcher
There was some confusion about whether Cam Gallagher and Meibrys Viloria had options remaining, but Viloria’s assignment makes clear that he has an option remaining and will play in the minors to begin the season. Gallagher has been a very serviceable backup to Salvador Perez the last few seasons, has been lauded for his framing skills, and has even shown some hitting ability at times.
It is interesting that Viloria was shipped out so early, and you have to wonder a bit about what his future is with the Royals. Sebastian Rivero had an impressive camp, and although he hasn’t hit much in his career so far, he has been very young for his level at each stop in the minors. The Royals also have MJ Melendez, who had a terrific offensive season in 2018, but struggled terribly in 2019. And don’t forget they signed two undrafted free agent catchers last summer in Kale Emshoff and Saul Garza.
Gallagher will be arbitration-eligible for the first time next season and is already 28 years old, so perhaps the Royals part ways with him and bring Viloria up next year. But Viloria has had attracted trade interest before, and the 24-year old left-handed bat could net an interesting prospect. For now, it’s nice to have some quality depth, especially considering Salvy’s age.
Edward Olivares will get time to play every day in the minors
Olivares looked impressive in a handful of games last season following his acquisition from the Padres for Trevor Rosenthal. In 18 games, he hit .274/.292/.419 and showed good speed and decent pop. A few weeks ago, it seemed like the right-handed bat might get a chance to platoon with Franchy Cordero in left field. The Andrew Benintendi trade pushed him to a reserve role, and the Jarrod Dyson signing pushed him to the minors.
With Benintendi, Michael Taylor, and Whit Merrifield likely to start most of the time in the outfield, there wasn’t going to be much playing time for Olivares even before the Dyson signing. Dayton Moore has stressed that he wants his young players playing, not sitting. Sending Olvares down is actually a good sign that they still see a future for him, but he is 25-years old now, and the clock is ticking. He’ll need to have a solid season in Triple-A, and take advantage of any opportunities he gets with the Royals, because the club is now placing more of an emphasis on winning now, and less on developing players for the long-term.
The lefty reliever battle comes into focus
The Royals shipped out a number of left-handed relievers, most of which were not a surprise. Angel Zerpa got some buzz but has yet to pitch above Low-A ball. Daniel Tillo has a promising career, but is recovering from Tommy John surgery. Eric Skoglund hasn’t seemed to be able to reclaim the magic from his Major League debut, and his career was derailed by a PED suspension. Gabe Speier is probably the most surprising pitcher to be assigned to the minors this early, as he has some MLB experience, but he was facing an uphill battle being a non-roster invitee to camp.
The demotions probably mean the left-handed reliever role is between Richard Lovelady and Jake Brentz. Lovelady has a career 2.17 ERA in the minors, and had a 3.08 ERA with 29 strikeouts in 26 1/3 innings for Triple-A Omaha in 2019. But he didn’t pitch well in 20 innings with the Royals that season, and only got into one game with them last year. He is still just 25 years old and with no veteran competition left, this may be his shot. He has yet to give up a run this spring in 3 2⁄3 innings.
Jake Brentz is a St. Louis kid who the Royals signed to a minor league deal in 2019. He has bounced around and is on his fourth organization, but the 26-year old has impressed in camp with a fastball clocked in triple digits. He has always had trouble with walks in his career, and that has carried into spring training with four walks and seven strikeouts in 4 1⁄3 innings. But he could be an interesting project with that kind of velocity.
Jake Kalish is still in camp too, as a non-roster invitee, but it seems a long shot that the 29-year old strike-thrower would make the team as a lefty reliever. Of course, the Royals may elect not to carry a lefty in their pen. With the rule that a pitcher must face at least three batters, there is less incentive to carry a guy that can retire lefties, plus Jesse Hahn had a terrific reverse split last year and was dominant against lefties.
It may be time for Ronald Bolaños to become a reliever
Bolaños flashed some impressive swing-and-miss stuff as a minor leaguer in the Padres organization, which was part of why the Royals were so eager to get him in a trade for lefty Tim Hill. He made last year’s Opening Day roster, but lasted just two starts, giving up seven runs while getting just eight outs.
He didn’t pitch at all in spring training for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Lynn Worthy reported at the beginning of camp that the team still wants him to work as a starter and continue developing his arsenal of pitches. But the Royals have a set rotation to begin the year with Brad Keller, Danny Duffy, Mike Minor, Brady Singer, and Kris Bubic. Jakob Junis could serve as a sixth-man if needed, and they have Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Asa Lacy, and Carlos Hernández in the minors, not to mention pitchers that could take a big step forward like Jonathan Bowlan and Austin Cox.
So it would be easy for Bolaños to get lost in that shuffle. He has always had some trouble throwing strikes, and many pitchers have moved to the pen and found they could throw strikes and improve velocity by working in short stints. If the Royals were still in full rebuild mode, you might give him a long look as a starter, as they did with guys like Jorge López. But with the emphasis on winning and with the depth they have, they don’t really need to audition players like that anymore. Bolaños will be 25 this August, it may be time to move him to the pen and see if he can become the next dominant Royals reliever.
Bobby Witt, Jr. wasn’t reassigned
The most interesting transaction was a non-transaction - Bobby Witt, Jr. was not among the first cuts. Going into spring training, it was probably assumed that Witt would get a few weeks with the big league guys, then get assigned to the minors with all of the other minor leaguers.
But Bobby Witt, Jr. had other plans. With all the caveats it is just spring training, he has destroyed spring training opponents, with blazing speed, amazing defensive plays, and jaw-dropping power that has produced three home runs. He has done it primarily hitting leadoff, and he hasn’t shirked from the bright lights either, homering in an MLB Network night game against Dodgers lefty Julio Urias last night.
Could he actually make this Opening Day roster? It seemed like an impossibility a few weeks ago, and still seems like a long shot, but every day he is not reassigned and continues flashing his five-tool ability, the greater his odds improve. Even with a terrific performance, the fact remains that he is just 20 years old, has played just 37 games at the pro level, with none at A-ball or higher. Spring training performances have been a mirage in the past, with the regular season played in much different conditions than the laid back, sunny atmosphere of Arizona. But if he continues to perform as he has, Bobby Witt, Jr. just might force the issue.
Some minor leaguers impressed
Spring training only gives us a glimpse of minor league prospects in a handful of games, usually in the late innings against other guys that are ticketed for Double-A. But it was good to see some prospects perform well, particularly guys whose careers were derailed by a tough 2019 season and the pandemic in 2020. First baseman Nick Pratto, in particular, had a terrific camp, going 7-for-15 with three home runs. He still had some strikeouts, but it was good seeing him make solid contact.
Nick Pratto turning on a piped 97mph fastball from Tony Santillan. pic.twitter.com/bQK2ZssRfB— FanGraphs Prospects (@FG_Prospects) March 5, 2021
Another prospect who had a rough 2019 season was Seuly Matias. After hitting 31 home runs in Lexington in 2018, he hit just .148 in 57 games in 2019 before he injured his hand. He returned to show some of that 80-grade power in camp, going 4-for-11 with a triple and a looooooong home run that smacked a palm tree.
Other minor leaguers that turned some heads in camp included Anderson Miller, who smoked some balls, including a home run against the Reds, Alec Marsh, who flashed a high-90s fastball, Collin Snider, who escaped a bases loaded jam, and struck out four of the eight hitters he faced, and Austin Cox, who struck out six in 3 1⁄3 shutout innings.