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2022 Royals season preview: The phenom arrives

Get ready for the Bobby Witt Jr. show.

Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

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There are baseball players that are young, and there are baseball players that are talented, but when you combine the two traits, you will capture the attention of fans. Baseball has long been mesmerized by fresh-faced rookies who take the league by storm, excelling seemingly effortlessly against seasoned veterans who have been working on their craft for decades. We call them “five-tool players” or “phenoms” and give them nicknames like “The Natural” or “The Kid”, while actual kids hoard their rookie cards speculating that they have a future Hall of Famer in their collection.

The Royals haven’t had a phenom take the league by storm since, well, never really. George Brett was a phenom, but he struggled initially until a hitting coach named Charley Lau took him under his wing. Clint Hurdle made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a prospect, but he struggled to hit lefties and was done in by a bad back. Bret Saberhagen did take the league by storm, winning a Cy Young and World Series MVP before his 22nd birthday, but he didn’t have the hype coming up as a prospect. Carlos Beltran won Rookie of the Year, and even put together a career worthy of Hall of Fame consideration, but was not quite a franchise player, or if he was, it was for a franchise that was hopeless. Prospects like Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and Eric Hosmer had very solid careers, but never quite matched the hype that was perhaps unfairly thrust upon them.

Robert Andrew Witt Jr. was the second-overall pick of the 2019 draft out of Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas, the son of big league pitcher Bobby Witt. The Royals had him play about a month’s worth of games in Arizona that summer, with underwhelming results. Then the pandemic happened, minor league baseball shut down for a year, and fans were shut out from knowing how prospects were doing.

Bobby Witt Jr. was doing just fine. Thanks in part to a revamped hitting development program, Witt used the canceled minor league season to improve his hitting. He began impressing coaches and players alike at workouts at Kauffman Stadium. By the time the next season rolled around, there was already a buzz around Bobby.

“He’s fun to watch. He does something every game that surprises you, and it’s going to be fun to watch that kid,” said Hunter Dozier after Witt blasted a 484-foot home run in spring training.

“I think the 15 tools that he has (are) unbelievable,” joked Brady Singer.

He showed off those tools in the minors, hitting .290/.361/.576 with 33 home runs and 29 steals in 124 games. He showed tremendous power, game-changing speed, and jaw-dropping plays on defense.

Baseball America named him 2021 Minor League Player of the Year. By 2022, it seemed a foregone conclusion he would make the Major League lineup.

“As a player, he’s one of the best I’ve ever seen here in Kansas City,” remarked Salvador Perez.

Kansas City Royals

2021 record: 74-88, 4th place, 19 games back

2021 pythag: 71-91

2022 PECOTA projection: 70-92

ZIPS projection: 75-87

Manager: Mike Matheny

Key additions: Taylor Clarke, Amir Garrett, Zack Greinke

Key losses: Hanser Alberto, Wade Davis, Greg Holland, Jakob Junis, Mike Minor, Ervin Santana

We know from studies that prospects have a high failure rate, but the success rate for top ten prospects is much higher, with around 40-55 percent of them “succeeding”. Witt is in fine company as Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. in the last 20 years, 14 hitters have earned that honor, combining for 34 All-Star appearances. Those 14 hitters have averaged 3.9 rWAR per-162 games.

Baseball America Minor League Players of the Year

Year Player of the Year G rWAR Other
Year Player of the Year G rWAR Other
2019 Gavin Lux, LAD 144 2.8 Career .233/.314/.368 hitter
2018 Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., TOR 344 9.5 2021 co-HR champ, 2nd in MVP voting
2017 Ronald Acuna, Jr., ATL 395 14.9 2018 Rookie of the Year, 2-time All-Star
2016 Yoan Moncada, BOS 539 12.6 .915 OPS in 2019, 21st in MVP voting
2014 Kris Bryant, CHC 884 28.7 2015 Rookie of the year, 2016 MVP
2013 Byron Buxton, MIN 493 16.2 Gold Glove, .897 OPS over his last 187 games
2012 Wil Myers, KCR 986 12.4 2013 Rookie of the Year, 2016 All-Star
2011 Mike Trout, LAA 1288 76.1 3-time MVP, 9-time All-Star
2009 Jason Heyward, CHC 1531 39.4 2010 All-Star, 5-time Gold Glover
2008 Matt Wieters, BAL 1167 18.2 4-time All-Star, 2-time Gold Glover
2007 Jay Bruce, CIN 1650 19.9 3-time All-Star, 2-time Silver Slugger
2006 Alex Gordon, KCR 1753 34.5 3-time All-Star, 8-time Gold Glover
2005 Delmon Young, TBR 1118 3.2 10th in MVP voting in 2010
2003 Joe Mauer, MIN 1858 55.2 2009 MVP, 6-time All-Star, 3 batting titles

The Royals will need to put a solid lineup around Witt, but they largely return the same hitters who led the team to the third-fewest runs scored in the American League last year. Witt will surely upgrade the offense at third - the Royals had the second-worst OPS from their third basemen in all of baseball. But the team will need rebounds from hitters with disappointing seasons such as Hunter Dozier and Carlos Santana, and they’ll need Adalberto Mondesi to stay healthy and live up to some of the hype that once surrounded him as a phenom.

The offense will also need to avoid too much regression from players that enjoyed career years in 2021. Salvador Perez has seemingly found the fountain of youth, or maybe it is a new batting stance that produces a league-leading 48 home runs. Nicky Lopez remembered who he was and became one of the best contact hitters in baseball and a .300 hitter in an era where those are about as rare as unicorns.

But the offense could most benefit from simply getting younger. Witt is not alone as a standout in the farm system. First basemen Nick Pratto and Vinnie Pasquantino, and catcher MJ Melendez also benefitted from the new hitting regimen and enjoyed outstanding minor league seasons in 2021. Pratto brings a patient eye and a smooth glove at first base. Pasquantino brings a surprising amount of contact for a power hitter who can draw walks. And MJ Melendez simply led all minor leaguers in home runs while playing wonderfully behind the plate. All three could be in the big leagues by the end of the season, ready to usher in a new era.

Royals 2022 expected starting lineup

Batter PA HR BA OBA SLG rWAR
Batter PA HR BA OBA SLG rWAR
RF Whit Merrifield (R) 720 10 .277 .317 .395 3.6
3B Bobby Witt Jr. (R) 0 0 - - - -
C Salvador Perez (R) 665 48 .273 .316 .544 5.3
LF Andrew Benintendi (L) 538 17 .276 .324 .442 2.4
1B Carlos Santana (S) 659 19 .214 .319 .342 -0.2
DH Hunter Dozier (R) 543 16 .216 .285 .394 -2.5
SS Adalberto Mondesi (S) 136 6 .230 .271 .452 0.4
CF Michael A. Taylor (R) 528 12 .244 .297 .356 2.5
2B Nicky Lopez (L) 565 2 .300 .365 .378 4.3
Bench PA HR BA OBA SLG rWAR
C Cam Gallagher (R) 124 1 .250 .298 .330 0.5
1B Ryan O'Hearn (L) 254 9 .225 .268 .369 -0.9
OF Kyle Isbel (L) 83 1 .276 .337 .434 0.5
OF Edward Olivares (R) 111 5 .238 .291 .406 0.0

It has taken some time, but the Royals are getting back to the defensive juggernaut they were in their pennant-winning days. Outfielders Andrew Benintendi and Michael A. Taylor won Gold Gloves last year, Salvador Perez is a five-time winner and was a finalist again last year, Whit Merrifield led all second basemen in Defensive Runs Saved and was a Gold Glove finalist last year, Nicky Lopez led all shortstops in Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Above Average, and Bobby Witt Jr. brings soft hands and a strong arm to third base.

The Royals have been banking on a young crop of pitching prospects that have begun infiltrating the big leagues, and the results were pretty mixed last year. There were seven Royals pitchers in their age-24 season or younger that made a start, Kris Bubic, Jonathan Heasley, Carlos Hernández, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Brady Singer, and Angel Zerpa. They combined to make 85 starts covering 405 13 innings with a 5.22 ERA, 7.9 strikeouts-per-nine innings with 4.0 walks-per-nine. In other words, they weren’t quite ready yet.

Frankly, some of them will never be ready. If the success rate for top ten prospects is about half, the success rate for non-top ten pitching prospects is much, much lower. But the best way to develop a pitcher is to start out with five pitching prospects. There is safety in numbers.

Zack Greinke returns to the organization that drafted him, developed him, and marveled at him as he won the 2009 Cy Young Award. He is older now - more maturity, but less velocity - but he’ll be invaluable as a mentor to the young pitchers if nothing else. Brad Keller tries to bounce back from a miserable 2021 season hoping a mechanical flaw he identified late in the season is fixed now.

The Royals bullpen may not have “HDH” from their championship years, but they may have one of the harder-throwing pens in all of baseball. Scott Barlow has quietly turned into one of the best relievers in the game, Josh Staumont has learned to throw his 100 mph fastball for strikes, and Dylan Coleman has been lighting up radar guns in the minors. The bullpen could also benefit from the young starting pitchers that there isn’t enough room in the rotation for right now, as well as more arms in the minors like Collin Snider, Nathan Webb, Ronald Bolaños, Anthony Veneziano, and Drew Parrish.

Royals 2022 expected pitching staff

Rotation ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 rWAR
Rotation ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 rWAR
RHP Zack Greinke 4.16 4.71 171 6.3 1.9 1.2
RHP Brad Keller 5.39 4.72 133.2 8.1 4.3 -0.2
LHP Kris Bubic 4.43 5.14 130 7.9 4.1 1.3
RHP Carlos Hernández 3.68 4.08 85.2 7.8 4.3 1.8
LHP Daniel Lynch 5.69 4.82 68 7.3 4.1 -0.1
RHP Brady Singer 4.91 4.04 128.1 9.2 3.7 0.1
Bullpen ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 rWAR
RHP Scott Barlow 2.42 2.63 74.1 11.0 3.4 2.9
RHP Josh Staumont 2.88 3.49 65.2 9.9 3.7 1.5
LHP Jake Brentz 3.66 4.23 64 10.7 5.2 0.5
LHP Amir Garrett 6.04 4.89 47.2 11.5 5.5 -0.3
RHP Taylor Clarke 4.98 3.54 43.1 8.1 2.9 0.0

One player can not turn a franchise around, and it is too much to expect that Bobby Witt Jr. will be an MVP candidate in his first season. The jump to the big leagues is one of the biggest adjustments a player will have to make. He will now see velocity and ungodly movement on a regular basis he hasn’t seen before. He’ll have to endure the grind of a 162-game schedule, the pressure of Major League media and fans, and the doubts that come with a profession where everyone fails 60-70 percent of the time.

But there is every reason to think he’ll succeed. He has the tools. He has the makeup. And as Royals senior director of player development/hitting performance Alec Zumwalt put it, he loves to compete.

“These kids grow up playing video games and they’ve got all their cheat codes. Well, that’s Bob’s cheat code — his competitiveness.”

Now, the Royals have to compete.

Poll

How many games will the Royals win in 2022?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    More than 95
    (11 votes)
  • 3%
    90-94
    (8 votes)
  • 14%
    85-89
    (34 votes)
  • 50%
    80-84
    (116 votes)
  • 20%
    75-79
    (48 votes)
  • 3%
    70-74
    (8 votes)
  • 1%
    Less than 70
    (4 votes)
229 votes total Vote Now
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