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Predicting the Royals’ Opening Day Lineup

The Royals have some actual choices to make, this year.

Mike Matheny pores over a lineup card
Mike Matheny pores over a lineup card

Predicting any particular lineup is a fool’s errand because Royals Manager Mike Matheny is the antithesis of former manager Ned Yost and likes to play around with them. If I count correctly, he had 10 different lineups in the first 15 games last season. That’s a lot of variety.

But, well, this is Royals Review and I am Jeremy “Hokius” Greco. If ever there was a place and a person to be involved with a fool’s errand, it’s here and it’s me. So let’s do this.

RF Whit Merrifield
2B Nicky Lopez
C Salvador Perez
LF Andrew Benintendi
1B Carlos Santana
DH Hunter Dozier
3B Bobby Witt Jr.
SS Adalberto Mondesi
CF Michael Taylor Jr.

It’s too bad Adalberto doesn’t still go by Raul Jr., we could have had three juniors in a row!

As for the rest of the analysis, the player most out of position in this batting order is probably Benintendi. He’s far from a prototypical big bat, but there’s not really anyone to force him lower and of the players I expect to be starters, only Salvy has the recent history of being a true big bopper.

Also, yes, I am predicting Bobby Witt Jr. to start the year with the Royals. The spring is going to be short, the Royals don’t really have a viable third baseman candidate ahead of him, and he’s already banged out a couple of dingers. Additionally, he could move up the lineup very fast if he has a hot start. Especially if Lopez, Benny, Santana, and/or Dozier struggle even a little bit. If he struggles, instead, then they might demote him and give the job to Emmanuel Rivera for a bit.

As for Matheny’s proclivities toward lineup changes, I think we could see even more of that this season. I expect the bench to include catcher Cameron Gallagher, outfielder Kyle Isbel, 1B/RF Ryan O’Hearn, and utility-player M.J. Melendez. Rivera and/or Edward Olivares might make the cut, too, since rosters will be expanded for April but I also wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t start in Kansas City, either. And even if they made the roster, I don’t think I’d count on them to play very much.

Melendez has the best chance to play out of that bunch. Salvy will need a day or two off his legs a week, Mondesi will need another two-to-three days as well. That’s a lot of opportunity for Melendez - who is primarily a catcher but has been working at third base and looking just fine - to fill in. On the days Mondesi needs a break I think it makes more sense to shift Bobby over to short than to move Lopez there and make Merrifield - who has complained that playing multiple positions on a regular basis takes a toll on the body and mind - to come in from right to play second. Witt and Melendez are younger and more eager to find big league playing time, so they’ll probably more readily agree to do whatever it takes to get it.

Isbel’s is a difficult situation because the Royals have shown a preference for longer-tenured players at times and with Merrifield, Dozier, and O’Hearn all having years of experience ahead of him in right field and Benintendi inheriting Gordon’s spot it will be hard for him to get out there. However, he might get some opportunities against right-handed pitchers to play centerfield and spell Michael Taylor for a bit. His play in Omaha and at the end of last year definitely deserves a further look, so however it happens, Matheny needs to make sure he gets on the field.

Gallagher and any other position players the Royals keep on the big league roster can probably expect to play only in the odd situation where the Royals need a gap filled late in a game after pinch-hitting and defensive swaps have depleted their preferred reserves or in blowouts.

The frustrating thing about all of this is that while the Royals have 10-12 guys they’d ideally give regular at-bats to, the lineup is probably still quite noncompetitive. Unlike many years in the past, the Royals will probably field a team where all 26 players deserve to be on a big league roster somewhere. Somehow that’s still resulted in a team that is unlikely to win more games than they lose.

Seriously, who do you remove from that lineup, though? Sure, you want to ditch Santana and Dozier but who else do they have in their system that’s likely to be significantly better? You say Pratto and I say that before the 2021 season, Pratto had been deemed a bust by many, and looking at one good year in AA and AAA with juiced balls and predicting that he won’t struggle at all in his major league debut seems foolish. Maybe you want to move on from Merrifield but even as I am far from sold on him as a starting right fielder, I don’t see a likely-better option.

As the season goes on, I think we can expect to see Santana, O’Hearn, and Dozier all get less playing time unless they have miraculous rebounds. Isbel and Melendez should force more playing time their way if they play anywhere near their potential and I would be very surprised to see Nick Pratto spend the entire year at Omaha. Injuries could also play a part in all of this. Dozier and Mondesi, in particular, have had a hard time staying healthy but anyone can get hurt and the rookies will need to be ready to pounce on any opportunities that come up.

It is at times like these that I’m glad I’m a fan and not in charge of the team. It might be easy to see that there’s absolutely no reason to keep paying Ryan O’Hearn to play at the MLB level, but solving some of these other problems can be a bit trickier. And for as frustrating as it can be to see the Royals make some of the choices that they do, it’s also nice to know that I’m rooting for a team that treats most of their players as something other than entirely dispensable widgets.