The talk of camp so far has been Bobby Witt, Jr., who has shown why he was the second overall pick of the 2019 draft, with three home runs in camp, including an awe-inspiring 484-foot blast. Just two years ago, Witt was still in high school, now he is hitting the reigning Cy Young winner, Shane Bieber. As teammate Brady Singer has attested, the kid seemingly has 15 tools.
It is not the first time a top Royals prospect has been invited to big league camp to show what he can do. Let’s look at how Witt’s spring training performance compares to some other top prospects in recent Royals history.
Alex Gordon, 2007
In 2005, Alex Gordon was named Baseball America College Player of the Year. in 2006, he was named Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year. Going into the 2007 season, he was ranked the #2 prospect in all of baseball and widely expected to become the team’s third baseman that year. Still, he wasn’t a lock, especially with incumbent third baseman Mark Teahen still on the roster. But Gordo had a terrific camp, hitting .317/.419/.556 with two home runs in 63 at-bats, despite a shoulder injury mid-way through camp.
“He’s been great,” manager Buddy Bell said. “I’ll say this: I don’t think he has to play any better to make the team.”
The Royals gave Gordo the Opening Day assignment at third base and he faced Boston All-Star pitcher Curt Schilling with the bases loaded in his very first at-bat. He struck out, and would struggle most of the first half, hovering under the Mendoza Line in mid-June. He would turn things around and finish at .247/.314/.411, but it would take a few years before Alex Gordon became the All-Star we would grow to love.
Billy Butler, 2007
Despite all the accolades, Gordon was not the prospect that was the talk of camp in 2007. it was a young 20-year old from Florida named Billy Ray Butler. He had hit .331/.388/.499 with 15 home runs in Double-A the previous season and was ranked the #25 prospect in the game by Baseball America. Everyone with the club said he had virtually no shot to make the roster - Mike Sweeney was occupying the DH spot and the consensus was that Butler still had to work on his defense. But it was hard to ignore his long home runs and a line of .419/.514/.774 in 31 at-bats.
“I really haven’t seen a lot of weaknesses at the plate,” manager Buddy Bell said. “Even though it’s spring training, and you’re not seeing the same pitchers that you’ll see in the regular season, he still has a really good clue of what he’s doing up there.”
Butler would be assigned to Triple-A Omaha, where he would dominate. By May 1, just past his 21st birthday, he would make his Major League debut, in left field no less. He struggled with the bat initially, earning a demotion, but was back in by the end of June, and finished with a solid line of .292/.347/.447.
Eric Hosmer, 2011
The Royals knew they had something special in camp even before Baseball America anointed their farm system as the best in baseball. Eric Hosmer brought a swagger to spring training that signaled that he would be in “The Show” before long. And he backed up his confidence with an amazing performance. He only had 20 at-bats with the big league squad that spring, but he hit .450/.520/.950 with two home runs, impressing his veteran teammates.
“But how about Hosmer? Holy cow! That was amazing. I thought he hit it through the bullpen wall.”
-Outfielder Mitch Maier
The club still assigned him to minor league camp midway through camp, but Hosmer would only spend 26 games with Triple-A Omaha. After a torrid start, he was called up to replace Kila Ka’aihue at first base on May 6. He hit .293/.334/.465 with 19 home runs in 128 games and would become a fixture at first base for the Royals for years.
Mike Moustakas, 2011
Moose had been drafted one year before Hosmer, and by 2010 he was putting up a monster season. He smacked 36 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A, hitting .322/.369/.630 and earning Royals Minor League Player of the Year honors. With short-term options like Wilson Betimet and Mike Aviles competing for the third base job, it seemed as if Moustakas might have a shot to make the big league club. But Dayton Moore took a cautious approach.
“There are some people in our organization who feel he’s ready for the major leagues,” Moore said. “There are others who feel he would very much benefit by a couple of months in the minor leagues.
“That discussion has nothing to do with his service time, however one could make the point that it makes perfect sense (to examine service time) for the flexibility of our roster going forward.”
Moustakas didn’t force the issue either, with a lackluster camp that saw him hit .227/.370/.364 with 1 HR in 22 at-bats, with a couple of errors. After a brief stint in Triple-A, he was called up in June and hit just .263/.309/.367, and it would take a few years before he became the All-Star slugger that would one day break the single-season club home run record.
Adalberto Mondesi, 2017
Adalberto Mondesi had already had a taste of the big leagues when he reached camp in 2017. He had appeared briefly in the 2015 World Series, and was called up for 47 games in 2016, although he looked overmatched. But he was still just 21 years old by the time camp began in 2017, and was locked in a competition for the starting second baseman job with Christian Colon and Whit Merrifield.
Colon had the former first-round pedigree, Merrifield had the minor league track record, but Mondesi had the loud tools. He smashed a long home run early in camp and wowed coaches with his speed.
“You want players to force your hand,” Moore told The Star. “We’ll see. He has options. We’re not completely sold at this time at what the opening day roster should look like. We have more time, and we’re not going to make those decisions until we need to.”
He would hit .333/.345/.556 3 HR in 54 at-bats, but those numbers may have been a bit misleading. Nonetheless, the Royals named him the starting second baseman. It did not go well. Mondesi would go 4-for-39 and last just two weeks before being demoted, opening the door for Merrifield. Mondesi would make his return to the big leagues in 2018, and would show glimpses of brilliance, but fans are still waiting for him to reach his potential.