The season still has a month to go, but Royals fans can be excused for thinking about next year, when they’ll see an entire season with the young rotation, and the roster will be infiltrated by top prospects like Bobby Witt, Jr. and Nick Pratto. The Royals shouldn’t have too many holes to fill before next season, but one position stands out as a gaping hole for 2022 - centerfield.
This is particularly surprising considering how important this position has traditionally been in Kansas City. From Amos Otis to Willie Wilson to Carlos Beltran to Lorenzo Cain, the Royals have had ballhawks to chase down fly balls in the spacious outfield of Kauffman Stadium. With the team looking to develop some young pitchers, it would make sense to emphasize outfield defense.
Let’s look at what options the Royals have as they try to address centerfield for next year.
Michael Taylor is the incumbent but he is a free agent at the end of the season. He has performed exactly as expected - a terrific defender, and well below-average hitter. Taylor leads all centerfielders in Defensive Runs Above Average, is tied for the most Defensive Runs Saved among all outfielders, and could very well win a Gold Glove this year. He also has the tenth-worst wRC+ among all qualified hitters, batting .246/.302/.363 with over a strikeout-per-game. He was signed to a very club-friendly $1.5 million contract, and by Fangraphs WAR, he has been easily worth that. If the Royals had a better lineup around him, they could carry him at the bottom of their lineup and let him play defense. But he’s 30 years old, and seems a bit stretched as a starter in this lineup, so they may want to go in a different direction.
Adalberto Mondesi returned with a bang, homering in his first game off the Injured List. But he has been moved off his natural shortstop position with the emergence of Nicky Lopez. The Royals say he will play third base the rest of this season, but with Bobby Witt, Jr. waiting in the wings (as well as MJ Melendez, who started a game at third in Omaha), Mondesi may not be set at third either. The Royals have talked about moving Mondesi to centerfield in the past, and he would have the athleticism to make the transition. Moving could keep him healthier, although there are no guarantees, and there are many costs and benefits to a transition. With Mondesi out of a position, moving to center to fill a hole makes a lot of sense, but there would still be a question on whether you can depend on him every day.
Whit Merrifield has played 70 games in centerfield at the Major League level, and played the position in college at South Carolina until Jackie Bradley, Jr. moved him off the position. By the metrics he hasn’t been too bad in center, although he hasn’t played the position at all in 2021. Moving Whit to center could allow Nicky Lopez to move back to second base - where he was a Gold Glove finalist - and allow Mondesi or even Bobby Witt, Jr. to play shortstop. I’ve always gotten the impression that Whit prefers second base, so this would require buy-in, and at age 32, Whit may not have the wheels to cover centerfield anymore.
Kyle Isbel was a surprise to make the Opening Day roster, but his time in the big leagues would be short-lived after he hit .265/.306/.324 with a 42 percent strikeout rate in 12 games. He has hit .266/.354/.420 with 12 home runs in Omaha, but has really come on strong lately, hitting .323/.410/.516 in his last 46 games. He has played primarily in center field in Omaha, although there have been some questions whether or not he can handle the position on a regular basis. Isbel is 24-years old and has little left to prove in the minors, and his patient approach could be a plus in the lineup if his defense plays in center.
Bobby Witt, Jr. is a natural shortstop, but when you’re as athletic as him, you can really play anywhere on the diamond. He has the speed to be able to cover centerfield, but he has not played in the outfield at all in his short professional career. Making the transition to the big leagues is difficult enough, the Royals may not want to add the pressure of transitioning to another position on top of that. When you have a potential franchise player, it is best not to mess with him too much.
Edward Olivares has showed some surprising power with 13 home runs in 63 games for Omaha, and 5 homers in 25 games with the Royals. But there have been concerns he doesn’t have the speed to cover centerfield on a regular basis and may be a fourth outfielder-type. He might make sense in a platoon role with Isbel, except he has traditionally had a reverse platoon split.
Starling Marte is by far the best of the free agent class in centerfield. The 32-year old is enjoying a career season in which he has hit .320/.396/.463 with 42 steals and he has been worth 4.5 WAR, according to Baseball Reference. Marte has enjoyed a huge spike in walks, and has maintained a low-strikeout approach to go with a good power/speed combo that should appeal to many teams. He’s a two-time Gold Glover, although not since 2016. His age may scare off some teams, and he is seeking a three- or four-year deal worth around $50 million which could price him out of the Royals’ plans.
Bryan Reynolds is one of the last remaining good players left in Pittsburgh, but he may not be there long. The 26-year old is hitting .298/.382/.512 with 21 home runs and has been worth 4.7 WAR, according to Baseball Reference. His defense hasn’t been great in centerfield this year, although it’s not terrible. Reynolds is under club control through 2025, and is eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter, so it will take a good package of prospects to get him.
Ramon Laureano has been speculated about a few times by Alec Lewis of The Athletic as a potential long-term option for the Royals. But that was before he was hit with an 80-game suspension for PED use this summer. That suspension may reduce the asking price for the 27-year old, who was hitting .246/.317/.443 with 14 home runs in 88 games with Oakland. He is a plus defender in center, named a Gold Glove finalist last year, and he brings good pop with solid speed. Laureano is under club control through 2025, so he could be a fixture for a team for several years.
Kevin Kiermaier has been patrolling centerfield at Tropicana Field for many years as a two-time Gold Glover, but the Rays are not sentimental and are willing to trade players at any time. Kiermaier is 31-years old and in his last year before free agency, which could make him a target for the Rays to deal. He’s still an elite defender in center - only Taylor and Myles Straw have been better, according to Defensive Runs Above Average. But he’s never been much with the bat - he’s hitting. .242/.305/.353 this year, and hasn’t put up an OPS+ of 100 since 2017. He’s not cheap - he’ll make $12.16 million next year, and has a $2.5 million buyout on his 2023 club option - but that likely means a team won’t have to give up much in prospects to get him.
Ian Happ was not dealt in the firesale at Wrigley this summer, but he could be moved this winter if they continue to rebuild. The 27-year old is hitting just .200/.298/.381 with 17 home runs this year, but hit .260/.350/.530 in 115 games over 2019-2020. He has a lot of swing and miss to his game, but provides some good power and a fairly patient approach. His defense in center is adequate, not great, but he brings some positional versatility, having played every position except shortstop and catcher.
Oscar Mercado is a guy I was personally high on as a prospect and had a terrific rookie season in 2019, but he has been largely a disappointment since then. He had a high walk rate in the minors that hasn’t quite translated to the big league level, but he doesn’t strike out much and covers good ground in center. With Cleveland acquiring Myles Straw this summer, Mercado may be out of a spot and could use a change of scenery.
Lorenzo Cain is a familar face to Royals fans, having played for Kansas City from 2011 to 2017 as one of the top defenders in the game. He’s not the player he once was, but even at age 35 he has been a productive player for the Brewers, hitting .246/.318/.395, worth 1.2 WAR in just 58 games, according to Baseball Reference. The Brewers may look to go younger next year with their crowded outfield, although they’ll have to eat some of Cain’s $18 million salary to move him. Cain is not a long-term solution, but he can be a stop gap until the Royals figure out what to do with the position. We’ve already had so many other reunions, why not one more?