The Royals are hoping to compete in 2021 as a team that has added multiple players this offseason. It brings a kind of weird dichotomy to people and fans outside of the Royals world that may see a team under a rebuild with a young crop of pitchers coming along but eager to see an unaccomplished group of position players looking to break through. With a large group of “younger” pitchers on the way but an older team at the major league level (projected lineup 29.4 years old), perhaps we won’t see the number of players promoted than some may have hoped.
If the Royals are in the race, I can’t imagine many players would get a shot for a contending, veteran team. Still, there are a couple of positions with possible openings in centerfield and second base who are already positioning themselves with strong springs.
Bobby Witt Jr. - The Royals’ top prospect and former first-round pick got off to a good start in spring even before hitting a pair of mammoth home runs his last two games. After a 484-foot shot, the legend is out of control and fans are clamoring. Still. the Royals have a pair of second base replacements in Whit Merrifield and Hanser Alberto should Nicky Lopez struggle but at the same time a Whit move that could leave a hole in right field. With the minor league season pushed back to May, Witt won’t start his season until later, so things don’t line up perfectly for him to impress enough in the minors to get a bump early. That lack of games is almost a formality as no Royals player at his level has had the number of reps he has against major leaguers and pitchers who will either start in the majors or Triple-A. The fact that Adalberto Mondesi played in the World Series, Yordano Ventura came up in September of 2013, and Brandon Finnegan was part of the pennant push in September of ‘14 show the Royals aren’t scared to put a young player in a critical situation. It would be hard to see the Royals pass on calling him up to compete in September if he is dominant Witt in the minors. Calling him up on a struggling team would be a mistake considering the need for roster spots the Royals will have this offseason.
Kyle Isbel - The other possible hole in the lineup is in centerfield, where Michael A. Taylor’s spring performance looks solid so far. Despite that, Taylor has put up just one above-average offensive season in his seven-year career. His defense, according to Fangraphs metrics, has been below-average the past two seasons. If that ends up being the case while his offense continues to about 25% below major league average, then the Royals will need a replacement. Outfielders Jarrod Dyson, Edward Olivares, and Nick Heath are likely to get opportunities. Still, Isbel will likely not be far away in either Double-A or Triple-A to start the season. Much like Witt, he impressed last summer at camp against pitchers of similar levels after performing well against Fall League opponents in late 2018. He is a natural platoon partner from the stronger platoon side that would make a ton of sense to get that bump.
A couple of position players are positioned well in case of a trade or an injury:
Nick Pratto - Currently, there isn’t a path for playing time for Pratto with Carlos Santana at first base and Jorge Soler at DH. That could change quickly with a Soler trade before the deadline, however. The young first baseman struggled in Wilmington alongside others, but the work he did impressed staff last summer, and he’s been showing well in Arizona. As a first-round pick, who will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft again next year, he has an opportunity to force the front office’s hand.
Sebastian Rivero - Any player on the 40 man roster has a chance to earn a promotion. A player on the roster at a position that Salvador Perez plays? That player has a great chance at getting a glimpse of the majors. Is it because he’s ready? No, a .548 OPS at Wilmington in ‘19 would say he’s not knocking down the door. Perez has been placed on the IL at some point in each of the last four seasons. To bet he will play the entire season without getting injured seems like a foolish bet considering age and the grind that catching takes. It’s at least plausible that Rivero is the third catcher on the 40-man roster, and Meibrys Viloria is passed through waivers.
Unlike the position players, the tie to winning isn’t as large as the effects the shortened 2020 season will play. The core six pitchers that are likely to make starts comes in at an average age of 28 years old, which isn’t that old considering the pitchers waiting in the wings in Omaha will be 24 years old. With pitchers on limited inning totals and starts it’s a natural fit for two to three starters to break through this season.
Jake Brentz - Good or bad season, this seems a likely possibility. 100 mph left-handed pitchers aren’t falling out of the trees, and that’s what Brentz is bringing to the table. Every team is going to need bullpen arms, and the Royals are lacking left-handed options. Brentz was said to have improved his command last year on the KCK site while fine-tuning his breaking ball.
Daniel Lynch - Lynch was fine-tuning his stuff last year in preparation of the next step. It seems obvious the Royals will need likely need at least six starters. In a best-case scenario, Brad Keller, Danny Duffy, Mike Minor, Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, and Jakob Junis could give the Royals 135 starts. That leaves 27 starts to be had for others like Lynch and others that perform well at Triple-A. After 78 1⁄3 innings in 2019, Lynch could give 100-115 innings between the majors and minors. With a May start at Triple-A, he could be rested enough to give a couple of months there before getting a bump sometime after the trade deadline, that is, if the lefty bumping upper-90s with a good slider didn’t work himself up sooner.
Jackson Kowar - Like Lynch, the Singer college teammate has been given the opportunity this spring to make his pitch to break with the roster. Both have struggled early while they’re finding their stuff. That slow start may have earned them a May trip to Omaha, but it doesn’t leave them too far out. As I explained above, the Royals will need starts but with few veteran options standing in Kowar or Lynch’s way. A ticket to Omaha will position Kowar to compete with Lynch, Carlos Hernandez, Scott Blewett, and a few others. At nearly 25 years old, the Royals college 2018 draftees, even with a lost year of minor league development, are old enough with enough innings under their belt to be knocking on the door after fine-tuning things. Kowar should be the next given his experience and the fact he is the only pitcher besides Singer and Bubic to pitch at Double-A or higher.
Jon Heasley - Is there a 2018 draftee that could dominate in the bullpen this season? Of course, Lynch, Kowar, or Jon Bowlan could pitch in a bullpen role this season, but Heasley could be the guy who never moves off that role. The right-hander features a high spin curveball that is reminiscent of current reliever Jesse Hahn while pairing it with a fastball that’s starting to reach in the upper 90s. His aggressive mentality, his work in 2019 from the Lexington bullpen, and limited future rotation spots make this a plausible scenario. There aren’t many opening spots in the bullpen before the trade deadline this season without injuries or struggling veterans opening up spots. Despite that, the bump against the 40-man roster this offseason could force a bullpen audition or two this season, and Heasley makes a ton of sense as a candidate for that.
Performance, playoff contention, and the Rule 5 draft this offseason will all play factors in who gets the bump to the majors this season. Limited evaluation for all players in 2020 may have bunched up these decisions but a few seem closer than others to making that leap.