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Spring training battles: The bench

Kansas City Royals v Seattle Mariners
Edward Olivares #14 of the Kansas City Royals celebrates in the dugout after hitting a game-winning two-run home run in the twelfth inning against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park on August 27, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. 
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Unlike many past seasons, the Royals have a pretty good idea who there starters will be going into camp. Salvy will be behind the plate, and barring a trade, Carlos Santana and Hunterr Dozier will likely split time between first and DH. Bobby Witt Jr. is expected to start at third with Adalberto Mondesi at shortstop and Nicky Lopez at second. The outfield will have Andrew Benintendi in left, Michael A. Taylor in center, and Whit Merrifield in right.

But with so much positional versatility, with Salvy needing time off from behind the plate, with Mondesi a health concern, and with Santana and Dozier coming off very disappointing seasons, the Royals may rely more on their bench than in the past. We know rosters will begin with a 28-man limit, but with no positional limits, most of those extra spots will be given to pitchers. So most likely you will see three, maybe four bench players to begin the year. Who could get those spots?

Catcher

Cam Gallagher

Cam is the incumbent, and there is no reason to think he won’t be the primary backup unless he gets traded. But a trade is a possibility as the Royals have a bit of a logjam at the position in the upper levels of the organization. Gallagher has been one of the better pitch-framers in the league and a plus defender overall. He is not a total zero at the plate, but will likely be appreciated most in a reserve role. If a team needs a steady backup, the Royals could find a taker for his services.

MJ Melendez

Despite leading all the minors in home runs, Melendez seems destined to start the year in Omaha for a bit more seasoning until the Royals can figure out how to get him in the lineup. But he has spent a bit of time at third base this spring and seems athletic enough to fill in at other positions on occasion. And he certainly seems to be holding his own with the bat.

Still, the Royals will likely want him to get regular playing time (and there may be some service time considerations in their back of their mind), so he’s not likely to begin the year on the team. But he may not be down for very long.

Sebastian Rivero

Rivero could make the team if the Royals decide to start with three catchers, to allow more flexibility for Salvy to DH. The Royals could also decide to trade Gallagher and let Rivero be the back up until Melendez is up. Rivero is a defense-first catcher, although his bat has begun to develop a bit. He hit .260/.319/,380 in 42 games for Omaha last year and appeared in 17 games with the Royals.

Infielders

Ivan Castillo

The Royals don’t need a true reserve middle infielder with Adalberto Mondesi, Bobby Witt Jr., and Nicky Lopez all capable of playing both second and short. But if they do want to carry a reserve middle infielder, Castillo is the most likely candidate. The 26-year old signed as a minor league free agents after playing in three games with the Padres last year. He’s a switch-hitter who could provide some flexibility, but he has never provided much offense, hitting .287/.326/.366 with three home runs in 113 games for San Diego’s Triple-A affiliate last year.

Ryan O’Hearn

First base is his primary position, but O’Hearn is more likely to see time in the outfield, where he wasn’t too bad in limited action last year. The lefty bat showed promise in 2018, but has hit just .205/.280/.358 in 756 plate appearances since then. He’s off to a great start in spring training, going 9-for-17 with two doubles and two home runs.

Now 28, O’Hearn has an option left and the Royals could still release him and pay him just a fraction of his salary, but the fact they signed him to a $1.3 million deal is a sign they think he has some upside left.

Nick Pratto

The only way Nick Pratto makes this roster is if the Royals trade or release Carlos Santana before the season begins. Pratto needs regular reps, and with Santana still on the roster, he is unlikely to play every day. Pratto showed a remarkable transformation last year, hitting .265/.385/.602 with 36 home runs in 125 games in the minors after a disastrous 2019 season. He has come into camp looking bigger, and hitting well with a .357 average, one home run, and a team-high six walks in spring training. Pratto will likely begin in the minors, but it won’t be long before you see him in Kansas City.

Emmanuel Rivera

Rivera flashed some terrific defense at third in limited action last year, but he had mixed results with the bat. He developed some good power in the minors with 19 home runs for Omaha in just 68 games, but did not see that translate to his 29 big leagues games, where he hit .256/.316/.333 with just one home run. With Witt the likely starter at third at the big league level, Rivera may not see a lot of playing time, but Witt could move to short when Mondesi sits, giving Rivera an opening.

Others: Gabriel Cancel, Clay Dungan, Nathan Eaton, Maikel Garcia, Vinnie Pasquantino

Outfielders

Kyle Isbel

Isbel was a surprise to make the team last year and started in right field on Opening Day, collecting three hits. But his stay in Kansas City was brief, and he spent most of the season in Omaha where he hit .269/.357/.444 with 15 home runs in 105 games. He returned to Kansas City to hit .286/.362/.524 in 16 games in September, giving hope he can be in the mix in right field this year. The 25-year old brings a patient approach to the plate with solid gap power and 15-20 home run potential.

JaCoby Jones

If the Royals value experience, that could give an edge to Jones, who spent six years with the Tigers before signing a minor league deal with the Royals. Jones brings modest power and speed, and hit just .212/.275/.372 in 352 games. He does bring an ability to play center field if the Royals want to sit Taylor. Like Castillo, Jones faces an uphill battle in that he would need to be added to the 40-man roster to make the team.

Edward Olivares

The new “I-29” for his numerous demotions to Omaha, Olivares has made his claim for a roster spot in spring training, going 9-for-15 with two doubles, two home runs, and one triple. That comes off a season in which he hit .313/.397/.559 with 15 home runs in 67 games for Omaha, and smacked five home runs in 39 games for the Royals. Oliveras has been seen as a “tweener” - not enough power for a corner outfield position and not enough defense for center. But some have noticed an offensive transformation that has unlocked more power, and he is making it difficult to ignore him.

Others: Dairon Blanco, Brewer Hicklen, Seuly Matias

The Royals could begin the season with four bench players, but after that first weekend, I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent a bat down to get another arm in the bullpen. So let’s have Isbel on the team to begin, but sent down after the first weekend to get regular at-bats in Omaha.

Prediction: Cam Gallagher, Kyle Isbel, Ryan O’Hearn, Edward Olivares