The Royals made a pair of trades this week, sending outfielder Michael A. Taylor to the Twins and infielder Adalberto Mondesi to the Red Sox. In return for trading away two of the oldest position players left on the roster, the Royals received a lefty that throws hard but has trouble with walks, another lefty that throws hard but has trouble with walks, then they mixed it up with a righty that throws really hard but has trouble with walks, and I think they also got a free coupon to Subway.
Anyway, the return doesn’t really matter much - the likelihood of getting much value from any of these three is not great. The trade value of Mondesi and Taylor was not high - Baseball Trade Values had the Taylor deal as a minor overpay by the Royals and the Mondesi trade as a very slight win for them. But a year from now all three could be a distant memory.
The real value the Royals received in these deals was the clear path they set for young players to get substantial playing time in 2023. The Royals have just 16 position players remaining on their 40-man roster with an average age of 25.8. Freddy Fermin - who has played in just three MLB games, is the fourth-oldest hitter at age 27. The Royals have 25 homegrown players, second-most on any 40-man roster.
The Royals have talked about going young before, only to add an older free agent or two to provide a “veteran presence” and protect the young hitters in the lineup. This year, the kids are driving the bus with no parental supervision. And while the Royals weren’t making a trade just to make a trade, General Manager J.J. Picollo made clear that opening up playing time for young players was a big part of these deals.
He told reporters on Tuesday that while they wanted something in return for Mondesi, Bobby Witt Jr. is “clearly our shortstop” and this trade “paves the way for him to play as much as he can at shortstop.” Witt struggled defensively at the position last year, but appears to have the tools to play the position, and would be an incredible asset with his bat if he could such a premium position.
The Taylor trade, while they gave up experience, was also an opportunity to see some young players. Picollo indicated that the move allows them to get an extended look at Kyle Isbel and Drew Waters. He particularly seemed high on Isbel’s chances of becoming a plus defender in centerfielder, which may indicate the 25-year-old has the inside track on more playing time there.
“With Kyle Isbel if you look at all of the data and metrics, he is an elite defender when it comes to jumps, reads, breaks. He is not the elite runner that Michael Taylor or Lorenzo Cain have been in the past. So we’ll get a chance to evaluate how he plays centerfield and if he’s of the ability that we need defensively to play centerfield at Kauffman.”
Isbel led all outfielders last year in “Outfield Jump” according to Baseball Savant. Picollo did not anticipate a rotation in center, and instead suggested Waters could see time in the corners, where he made 18 of his 28 starts last year.
Of course, going this young should have happened five years ago, when the core of the championship team left. Instead, the Royals wasted Whit Merrifield’s prime years on several 100+ loss teams, pinned their hopes that Mondesi would reach his potential, and trusted the process that their player development would bring the farm system back quickly. It didn’t, and the Royals seem headed for their sixth consecutive season near the bottom of the standings. But better late than never I suppose - going young offers hope they are headed in the right direction toward contention.
While the lineup should be one of the youngest in baseball this year, the pitching staff is still surprisingly old. The 40-man roster currently has 12 pitchers that are 27 years of age or older and that could increase if they officially sign 34-year-old Aroldis Chapman and 39-year-old Zack Greinke. That the Royals are so willing to go young with their hitters while still relying on older pitchers may indicate which side of player development they trust more right now.
Picollo indicated that the roster is still a “work in progress” and that the team could still add some veterans for depth. While he insisted the club did not have a firm budget, he suggested the payroll would sit around $85-90 million. With the two trades this week, the Royals have a projected payroll of $75 million, which could go up by $3.75 million once the Chapman deal is official. And they may not be done dealing - multiple reports indicate they are talking to teams about other players, including Nicky Lopez and Hunter Dozier.
Regardless, it is clear they are using this season to get a good long look at their young players. Fans have been asking to “play the kids”, and the kids will definitely play in 2023. They won’t all pan out, but at least they will have gotten a fair shake to see what they can do. Now it is up to them to seize the opportunity.