The talk of camp has been Bobby Witt, Jr., who has been called “the freak” by teammates for his “15 tools.” It seemed unthinkable that he could make the Opening Day Major League roster after just 37 professional games. However, the 20-year old has performed so well in spring training, the unthinkable has become a real possibility with Dayton Moore saying he is “open-minded” to the idea.
We asked our writers to weigh in - should the phenom be on this team in April?
Should Bobby Witt, Jr. make the Opening Day roster?
Max Rieper: It seemed absurd to even suggest this a month ago, but the kid does have an exciting amount of talent. He can hit for average, power, he has blazing speed, he is a sensational defender, and he does seem to carry himself with a presence and maturity you don’t see from kids his age.
I just can’t see a good reason to have him start the season in the big leagues after just 37 professional games. There are service time implications, which I hate, but are still a factor, but more importantly you don’t want to take any big risks when you are gifted superstar talent like this. If you rush him up before he’s ready, you risk wasting a year or more yo-yoing between the big leagues and minors. You risk hurting his confidence. You risk using up one of his six pre-free agency years on a season the Royals are not likely to be serious contenders. I like Joe Sheehan’s assessment of having Witt start the year in the minors - “There is really no risk to doing so, whereas having him start the year with the Royals is almost all downside.”
Matthew LaMar: Absolutely not. That we’re having the conversation right now is, frankly, ridiculous. The Royals have rather masterfully marketed Witt over the last year - without a lot of baseball, they’ve had to create interest where they can, and since Witt is a former second overall pick with clear talent, there’s obvious reason to get excited for him.
But marketing be damned, it’s important to remember that this excitement is based on what amounts to two dozen or so plate appearances in spring training. That’s nothing! There isn’t a scrap of statistical evidence that suggests a 20-year-old without a single recorded plate appearance outside short-season rookie ball should start on the big league roster.
David Lesky: If it helps for the discussion, I went back through each game and BWJ is 6-for-25 with two home runs and one walk against all the pitchers he’s faced who have thrown a single big league pitch. I didn’t count the strikeouts, but it’s at least 8.
Max Rieper: Yea, spring training is a very sterile, simulated environment, not much like the regular season at all. The competition is uneven - Julio Urias is really the only above-average MLB pitcher Witt has a hit off of, the weather is dry and nice, you only get two, maybe three at-bats, you probably don’t play every day. Let’s see how he does in the grind of a regular season. Let’s see how he does after a 3 a.m. flight. Let’s see how he does once pitchers see him a few times and adjust. Let’s see how he does after 20 games in 20 days in the middle of July. He seems to have all the intangible qualities you want, but let’s see him go through it first.
Shaun Newkirk: My concern is mostly two-fold/compounding and I’m going to call it the “nightmare scenario.” Witt has very little non-practice experience as a professional player. He hasn’t played true competitive baseball since August of 2019. There is a very real belief - spring training performance be damned - that BWJ isn’t ready for the major leagues based on a semi-linear ideal of a minor league development path. Want to skip A-Ball? Okay, sure, that’s fairly normal. Skip Triple-A? Yeah, happens all the time. There is arguably no precedent, at least in modern day baseball, of a player jumping right from rookie ball (where he wasn’t particularly good to boot) to the major leagues.
Would we be surprised if Witt struggled if he did break the Opening Day roster? I think that would actually be more expected to happen than him doing well. Prospect psychology is real, and there are numerous examples of player’s development being stunted because they were promoted too fast. It would be an inexplicable outcome for the Royals if this were to happen.
Now the second part would be using a year of service time, which is important in a year that, in my opinion, the Royals aren’t going to be competitive. FanGraphs has the Royals at 77 wins, PECOTA says 71, Clay Davenport says 72, and “Vegas” has set the over/under at 72.5. Sure, there is some “hope springs eternal” scenario where they outperform those records and end up in the wild card. Those scenarios exist inside all those projections/predictions above! However, it’s unlikely I think.
So now you’ve hit the nightmare scenario of using a year of service time, on a team that finished not that close to the playoffs, and potentially hurt the development of Witt. I don’t know - that seems like malpractice.
Clint Scoles: I’ll be a contrarian here. Bobby Witt will not sign a team-friendly deal in KC. What is the point? He has secured a rather large contract as a signing bonus already and isn’t going to be hurting for money. At this point the contract that is going to secure his services long-term is going to be a big bag of cash that rivals that of the quarterback across the parking lot. It’s going to take performance on his part, winning, a good relationship, and big money to secure his services. Fernando Tatis signed his deal after a winning season and maybe because the Padres didn’t game his service time. Nolan Arenado went sideways with the Rockies but he signed his mega-deal after a winning season in 2018 when things were looking good. What did missing out on Bryce Harper cost the Nationals? In the end nothing.
The comparisons to Eric Hosmer and others that have walked away from Kansas City are out there and with only Hosmer was winning not really an issue. Even Carlos Beltran had a deal on the table that he walked away from over $1 million because the Glass family fumbled it if you believe the rumors. In the past money was always an issue. The new TV deal the Royals signed should make that less so if they are willing to reach the heights of a Tatis, Trout, or Arenado deal. If that’s less of a concern then it comes down to winning and working with people he likes. Part of that comes down to feeling like he was treated well.
Gaming service time can create an issue if he is ready and his father/agent feel like he’s ready. Creating the atmosphere he wants to be in long-term plays into this. If the evaluation process says he’s ready then there is nothing wrong with making that decision to call him up now. One extra year shouldn’t factor in if you’re creating a winning dynamic to continue to develop winning players to add around him.
Max Rieper: I think that’s a valid point, but this is not a Kris Bryant-situation where it was obvious the player was big-league ready. The Royals would have all sorts of baseball reasons to send him to the minors. I do wonder how the pushed-back minor leagues season does play into all this. If you ship Witt down, he won’t be playing actual games until May. Now they seem to like how players developed at the Alternate Site, but if they want him getting game action, the big leagues are the only place he can get face live pitching in real games in April. Is it possible he could start with the Royals in April - almost like a September callup - only to get sent down in May?
Josh Keiser: Probably not. I love that he’s making it a question though. He’s gone from “Hey this kid might be the guy they drafted him to” to “Hey maybe this grown. ass. man. might be the exception to the rule”. At the end of the day, the Royals have repeatedly said that they want to and expect to win now by putting the best roster on the field at all times - that’s Dayton Moore’s M.O. - service time and controlled years go out the window.
What we’re seeing from Witt Jr. (yes, in a very small sample size) tells me that he can do more for this roster than Nicky Lopez. Yes it’s bad business (I want him for as long as we can have him), yes it could stunt his development (NO ONE knows how he would react to getting the call this early), yes his spring success has largely come from lower-level pitching (we’ll get a better look at him against better talent in the coming weeks). All of those points are fair.
And you’ve probably already read a bunch about his small sample size from my cohorts at Royals Review. But what no one seems to want to acknowledge is the fact that he saw a summer’s worth of competition against one of the deepest systems in starting pitching in the league. He saw Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Carlos Hernández, and the like regularly last season. And the only people that saw those at-batss are the ones needing to answer the question - the Royals. Not me. Not Royals Review. Not any of the great beat writers the Royals have. Just the Royals. And that includes the NUMEROUS players that have gone to social media in the last week and poured gasoline on this fan fire.
All that being said, I think it makes the most sense to send him down and give Nicky more reps to see if he can figure it out. The season is (probably) not going to be lost in that time and it can’t hurt Bobby Witt, Jr. to go do more practice for a month before starting a minor league season...right?
Where do you think Bobby Witt, Jr. spends this season?
Shaun Newkirk: What should the Royals do? Hold him back in extended spring training, send him to Quad Cities (High-A) with an eye towards him hitting well and finishing the year in Double-A. That sets up a good scenario/excuse to jump him right to the majors in 2022 if he does well in Double-A, as skipping Triple-A is fairly common these days for top prospects.
What do I think the Royals will do? Send him right to Double-A where he spends most if not all the season. It’s hard to forecast what they will do when he goes to AA because that’s entirely dependent on his performance. They rarely demote players to a lower level in the minors than they are at, so I would guess if he didn’t hit well, he’d just spend the entire year in Double-A. If he does hit well, Triple-A is in the cards, but I find it hard to believe they’d call him up in September or something. That would mean he would need to be put on the 40-man when there is basically no rush to do so.
Matthew LaMar: I bet he makes his big league debut. In part, it’s because there are multiple ways for him to do so; it could be at second base, where the Royals’ incumbent is a guy (Nicky Lopez) with a career MLB wRC+ of 55. It could be third base, where Hunter Dozier has been poor defensively. It could also happen at shortstop after an Adalberto Mondesi injury, which has happened pretty much every year at some point.
But it seems like Witt will start at Double-A, which seems reasonable considering the talent he’s played with this spring, last fall, and last summer.
Clint Scoles: I expect we see him at some point this season. If I was controlling the process I’d start him in Double-A, wait for him to play well enough there in June to get the bump to Triple-A. If he plays well at Triple-A and the Royals are in the race after the deadline then he would be a great addition in August and September to push the team over the top for a wildcard spot.
Basing things off previous minor league curves seems pointless. How many players have played a summer against Double-A and Triple-A players with a few fringy/injured major leaguers mixed in after being drafted the year before? We would probably have to go back to the old draft days to find that. We have nothing to base last year off of other than what the front office, players, and coaches say. They all praised him nonstop and if that didn’t create a competitive atmosphere from Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar and others to shove it and put him away via strikeout everyday then we have to question their competitive genes. This system has a depth of talented pitching, if he was getting over on Kowar’s fastball/changeup, Lynch’s fastball/slider and other combinations then he’s ready for the upper levels and the evaluation for the next level.
Max Rieper: Yea, I was trying to find some sort of precedent for a high school draftee coming up to the big leagues with this little minor league experience, and there just hasn’t been since Robin Yount in 1978. On the other hand, no high school draftee has had an entire minor league season wiped out due to a pandemic. So this is all rather unprecedented, and it may necessitate unprecedented action.
Matthew LaMar: The one and only good argument for starting Witt on the big league roster is related to the minor league season’s delay. As Sam Mellinger said in a recent column, the question isn’t “whether to put Witt Jr. in the big leagues or the minor leagues.” rather, it’s “whether to put Witt Jr. in the big leagues or the alternate site, where he’d be playing something less than real baseball games.” Witt can be sent down when the minor league season starts if he’s struggling. But until then, playing in Kansas City is undeniably the best experience he’s gonna get.
Max Rieper: My guess is he goes to the Alternate Site in Double-A, then plays with the Naturals (who should have a pretty loaded team this year with Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Asa Lacy, Nick Pratto, and Seuly Matias possibly on the roster). I would guess if he puts up good numbers for a month they’ll call him up quickly, possibly by his 21st birthday in mid-June.
Josh Keiser: I think in the end, he’ll start in Double-A Northwest Arkansas cutting his teeth. By the end of June, he will be slashing .308/.389/.461 in ~ 48 games. I think the Royals will be hovering around .500 at that point and the fans will be clamoring for a change at second base. Bobby will get the call, skipping Omaha altogether as there’s somewhat of a logjam of infielders there, and make his debut by July 4th. After that, he’ll never see a minor league stadium outside of a rehab stint for the rest of his career.
Should Bobby Witt, Jr. make the Opening Day roster?
This poll is closed