On the eve of the 2022 baseball season, our writers collaborate to discuss the Royals and what we think will happen this year.
What are your expectations for Bobby Witt Jr.?
Matthew LaMar: I think he’ll be pretty good! I don’t know if he’s going to be great, at least right off the bat. It’s hard to play at an All-Star level as a rookie. Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas—all were top-ranked prospects who went through struggles in their first few years. What Witt has that those others don’t is elite athleticism. He’s going to be an efficient base stealer, an excellent base runner, and ought to be a good to very good defender. Even if he’s just an “ok” or “good” hitter, that’s easily a 3-4 WAR player a la 2021 Nicky Lopez.
David Lesky: It’s hard not to put a lot on the player who is the betting favorite to win the Rookie of the Year and has had as strong a spring as he’s had. That said, I think there’s at least a chance he struggles some. I think a lot about Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. He was perfectly fine in his first two years, but nothing near what everyone thought he’d be. He obviously broke out last year, but he’s a great reminder that no matter how ready someone looks, the jump from AAA to the big leagues is still a difficult one.
That’s a long way to say that while I think he’ll be good, my expectation is not greatness immediately. I think you’re looking at a solid enough average, maybe somewhere between .265 and .280 with legitimate power. I’d expect a .200 ISO or better. He’ll steal bases and play very good defense too. If I had to put numbers on it, I’d say something like .270/.335/.490 with 22-25 homers and 30+ steals.
Max Rieper: In the Wild Card era, just four hitters have debuted in their age-22 season with at least 500 plate appearances and been a league-average hitter - Evan Longoria, Eloy Jimenez, Nick Markakis, and Robinson Cano. I can squint and see Witt putting up what Longoria did when he won Rookie of the Year in 2008 with a bit less power and a lower batting average (to account for lower averages now), so maybe .260/.330/.500 with 20 home runs and 20 steals, good for 3 WAR. I am very curious to see how well he has improved in plate discipline, that is likely to be his Achilles’ heel.
Shaun Newkirk: I’ve been on the “let’s set realistic expectations for prospects” train for a bit and I’m still on it. What probably will happen is something like Witt Jr gets his first couple of hits in the first 2-3 games, starts off hot, hype gets built, then he struggles. That is really where it matters, what his adjustments are after he’s been adjusted to by teams. His projections run anywhere from 1.5 to 4 WAR, and I think for a rookie I’d lean closer to the 1.5 WAR side than the 4 WAR side, particularly if he’s going to be playing more third base than shortstop. I think something like a 95-100ish wRC+, good defense, 25%ish strikeout rate, 8%ish walk rate, and let’s say 15 stolen bases with 15 home runs.
Jeremy Greco: He’s going to be Mike Trout, but at third base and running more often!
That would be nice, but even Mike Trout wasn’t Mike Trout when he was first promoted. Bobby may struggle a bit early on or in the middle of the year, but I still fully expect him to end up as a strong ROY candidate.
Which young pitcher is most likely to have a breakout season?
David Lesky: I think you can make an argument for just about every single one of them. Brady Singer had success in his rookie year before taking a step back last year. Kris Bubic had ups and downs in both his seasons. Daniel Lynch put up huge numbers for about six weeks after his recall. Carlos Hernández had a stretch that coincided with Lynch’s that was even better. Jackson Kowar was terrible, but he has good stuff. I’d pick between Bubic and Lynch as the one to break out because I think both of these guys take a very analytical approach to pitching that will lend to improvement. If I had to guess, I’d say Bubic because he’s had big league success in multiple seasons and looks like he’s found a slider that can complement everything he throws.
Jeremy Greco: Kris Bubic. I could make up some reasons for why that might be true but the fact of the matter is that he’s my favorite of the 2018 draft class and I mostly just WANT him to succeed.
Max Rieper: They’re all a bit enigmatic in some respect. Brady Singer has great movement, but a limited repertoire. Daniel Lynch has a wipeout slider, but hittable fastball. Carlos Hernández has a monster fastball but doesn’t miss bats. Jackson Kowar looks great in the minors but completely overmatched in the big leagues. Kris Bubic seems to alternate terrific starts with blow ups.
I think Lynch still has the best upside out of all of them and he showed some flashes of brilliance at the end of last year. Hernández probably has the second-best breakout potential, and I wouldn’t count out a guy like Angel Zerpa who seems a bit like José Quintana in his prime - nothing flashy, but a poised lefty who gets results.
Matthew LaMar: This is a tough question because you’d have to take the field over any one pitcher or even a couple of pitchers. Pitching prospects have a tremendous rate of attrition, and while I expect somebody to take the next step, it’s more likely that any individual pitcher will get injured or stagnate. Still: if we’re defining “breakout” as “will be much better than they have been in the past,” I think I’m going to go with Asa Lacy, whose fastball hit 99 MPH in Spring Training. Put it this way: Lacy is going to be in Double-A to begin the year. We could very well see him in Kansas City in September.
Shaun Newkirk: Boy this is tough. Pitching is inarguably the weakest part of the team and pretty much all of the projected innings are going to guys who have already pitched a bit in their careers and aren’t complete unknowns. How about Dylan Coleman? Feels like if any group is going to break out on the pitching side it’s in the bullpen, Coleman only has six MLB innings, had a decent couple of outings last year, and projects pretty decently this year. We’ll see about the command side of things but two above-average pitches.
What has to happen for the Royals to succeed this year?
Shaun Newkirk: The pitching has to be at least in the top 10 or so in WAR/FIP/ERA or your favorite metric (will even include pitcher wins here because that correlates 100% to team wins!). The offense could be average, maybe even top 10ish if you really crank up the tint of your powder blue colored lenses. The pitching side is a complete question mark, something that I think I’ve said 2-3 years in a row. Doesn’t matter if the offense beats their projections if the pitching side can’t hold up even slightly better than they are projected to be (and they are projected to be not good).
David Lesky: There’s not necessarily one thing that has to happen. People often say that this player has to do this and that player has to do that, but the reality is that they need to find a way to add 75 runs scored and cut 50-60 runs. Pretty easy, right? They either need Hunter Dozier to hit like he did in the second half or get replaced by someone who will. They either need Carlos Santana to hit like he did in the first two months or get replaced by someone who will. Nicky Lopez has to be at least 85 percent of what he was last year. Adalberto Mondesi both needs to stay healthy and be better than he’s been since 2018. Salvador Perez needs to keep at least 30 of his home runs from last year.
Then on the pitching side, if you think Zack Greinke isn’t cooked and those last few starts were just the result of having Covid and wearing down, then you need at least two of the young pitchers to step up as mid-rotation starters and two more as at least back-end guys. It’s all doable, but it’s not easy to do.
Max Rieper: To have a winning season, they would need Witt to be a Rookie of the Year contender, for Santana to be cut and Nick Pratto to be reasonably decent from the outset, and not much regression from Nicky Lopez and Salvador Perez. Someone from the pitching staff would have to emerge as a breakout performer. I like the depth they have there, but it is starting to look like their ceilings may be a bit limited. Hopefully one or a number of arms can break through that ceiling this year.
I think this year can be “successful” even if the record doesn’t reflect success. But the pressure is definitely on for this team to start winning games.
Jeremy Greco: There can be no regression, Mondesi has to be healthy, Witt has to be good, and at least two of the young pitchers need to become very good.
Matthew LaMar: The most interesting answer to this question has to do with “succeed.” What does that mean? How low is the bar, really? I am going to place the bar pretty high: succeeding is being legitimately in the playoff hunt in September. For that to happen, the Royals need to improve on the bottom end on the position player front and on the top end of the pitching front. The Royals handed out a whopping 2,232 plate appearances to players with a negative WAR in 2021—you just can’t do that if you want to win. And as for pitching, well, they just didn’t have any standouts last year. Somebody needs to step up.
When do we see Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez in Kansas City?
David Lesky: I think we see Melendez pretty quick, maybe mid-May. He’s the guy who I think gets out of the gate the fastest of all the young bats, so I’m guessing he does well in AAA to start 2022 and the Royals find a spot for him after a few weeks. Pratto probably has to wait for Santana to get dealt or DFAed, which might take a little longer, so I think he gets up somewhere around the All-Star break.
Matthew LaMar: Pretty soon; sometime in May, I’d guess, for the first. I say this because the guys standing in front of them are not exactly stalwarts. Carlos Santana, Hunter Dozier, and Ryan O’Hearn were all terrible last year. Edward Olivares and Kyle Isbel are unproven and have options. Cam Gallagher is a nice backup catcher but has an injury history and isn’t going to move the needle by himself. No Jorge Soler means no full-time DH. There will be plate appearances available.
Max Rieper: Nick Pratto will make his debut on June 24 at home against Oakland. MJ Melendez will debut August 4 at home against Boston.
Shaun Newkirk: Pratto: Just thinking when the mercy DFA comes for Ryan O’Hearn (though he still has an option left)...let’s say it is in May.
Melendez: He is a bit tougher because there is arguably not a spot for him if Salvador Perez, Hunter Dozier, and Carlos Santana are all on the 26-man. Assuming Perez doesn’t get injured by a falling piano or something, I think he’ll be more of a June/July call-up after the first half or so of the AAA season is done. He’s been working defensively outside of catcher, so there is some upside on his call-up timeline.
Jeremy Greco: Around the All-Star Break at the latest, maybe a bit after, but they’re not going to wait until September.
Give us one bold prediction about the season.
Matthew LaMar: Vinnie Pasquantino ends the season with a better batting line than Witt, Melendez, or Pratto. Not the most productive overall, mind you. But his minor league batting lines are wizardry. He’ll debut in the second half of the year and rake comfortably in the shadow of his more famous teammates.
Max Rieper: Despite being far back in the standings, the Royals make a big trade in July to acquire a long-term player, let’s say Bryan Reynolds of the Pirates.
Shaun Newkirk: Okay let’s get nuts: Whit Merrifield is traded finally. It’s July 15th, the Royals are 12 games under .500 and well back of the White Sox and Twins. Merrifield is on the last year of his guaranteed deal and the front office finally agrees it is time to get him off 90-100 loss teams and experience the playoffs before his career is over (though he will likely still play somewhere after his 2023 team option). Working with Whit, the front office trades him to a team of his choice and he ends up either in Washington or Atlanta (the closest teams to his hometown).
Jeremy Greco: The Royals will be rumored to be in on an Eric Hosmer trade, it will not happen.
David Lesky: I don’t know if it’ll be Bubic or Lynch or someone out, but one of the young starters puts up a fantastic season. I’m thinking a sub-3.20 ERA with the peripherals to match it and solidifies himself as the ace of the future, whoever it is.
How many games do the Royals win in 2022?
David Lesky: I so badly want to say 95 and mean it, but I think they’re roughly .500 and I’ll go with 79 wins.
Max Rieper: I think the Royals will have a successful season, but you may not see it in the standings yet. I think the Central has gotten tougher, so I have them making strides, but only winning 75 games and finishing last. They’re a year away, and they could make a big jump in 2023.
Jeremy Greco: 81.
Shaun Newkirk: Still sticking with my prediction from the prediction piece: 74 wins
Matthew LaMar: Uh, let’s go with 81. They’ll be a lot more fun. I think they have an outside chance at making some noise in the playoff picture. They have a lot more upside than people probably give them credit for. I get the feeling that the front brass is a little restless, and that they probably would have made a big move if there wasn’t so much uncertainty.