It’s a new year, which means the Royals are undefeated this year! It’s also a time for predictions that will almost certainly be wrong, because what do we have to cling to this time of year other than hope?
Here are ten predictions for what could happen to the Royals in the 2023 calendar year.
Vinnie Pasquantino signs a long-term deal
The Royals have been very conservative with spending this off-season with J.J. Picollo saying it “may not be the right time to invest heavily in this team.” While it does make some sense to forgo free agency to give playing time to younger players, investments in those younger players with long-term deals would send a message to the team and fanbase that the team isn’t just begin cheap. Bobby Witt Jr. is the obvious candidate for a long-term deal, but his high upside may price him out of what the Royals are comfortable paying a player after one year in the big leagues. MJ Melendez makes a lot of sense as well after a solid rookie campaign, but uncertainty over where he will play on the field clouds his long-term outlook.
So Vinnie Pasquantino makes a lot of sense as the first player among this crop of rookies to get a long-term deal. The former 11th-round pick did not receive a huge bonus out of college ($125,000) and would likely jump at the opportunity to guarantee himself millions of dollars. For the Royals, it would mean committing to a hitter who not only put up great numbers in his rookie season (.295/.383/.450 with 10 home runs and 35 walks in 72 games) but has underlying metrics that scream “this kid only hits good pitches and he hits the crap out of them!” There is some positional uncertainty with him as well - can he stick at first base? Is there room for him at first with Nick Pratto? But a long-term deal should be well within the Royals’ budget - David Lesky guesses that a seven-year, $42 million deal with some escalators makes sense. And locking up a fan favorite like “Italian Breakfast” would be a popular move.
Bobby Witt Jr. becomes a solid defender at shortstop
There was a lot to like about Witt’s first season in the big leagues, and he certainly flashed Gold Glove-caliber play at times. But he suffered from inconsistency on defense, and his Defensive Runs Saved were tied with teammate MJ Melendez for the worst in baseball. Witt certainly seems to have the physical abilities to be a slick defender at short with a strong arm, good range, and at times, good instincts.
But he was error-prone, particularly in a three-week period after the All-Star break when he made 8 of his 19 errors for the season. I’m willing to chalk that up as inexperience at playing a full season in the big leagues - remember had played just one full professional season before this year - and a young man getting worn down by the grind of a hot Kansas City summer and the grind of a 162-game season. Shortstops like Tim Anderson and Marcus Semien were error-prone early in their career only to become solid defenders, I think it makes sense to see if Bobby Witt Jr. can make that same kind of improvement.
Hunter Dozier will be released
It seems pretty clear by now that Dozier’s 2019 season was fool’s gold. He has been unable to come close to matching his numbers from that season, and in fact has been the second-least valuable player in baseball since then with -1.3 fWAR and a line of .226/.297/.391.
I think the plan will be for Dozier to begin the year as the starting first baseman/DH until they feel comfortable that Nick Pratto is ready for the big leagues. If Dozier has bounced back, perhaps he has some trade value, although the Royals would certainly have to eat most of the $17.75 million owed on his contract. But if there is no interest, I expect them to release him. The Royals released Omar Infante many years ago with about the same amount of money owed on his deal, so there is a precedent. And Picollo does not seem to be tied to Dozier in the same way Dayton Moore was - there may also be a point where ownership insists on moving on. Either way, I expect Dozier to no longer be on the roster by the end of the year, and hopefully he can get his career back on track elsewhere.
Royals pitchers will throw more cutters
The Royals had been a team to generally shun the cutter over the Dayton Moore era. Last year, no team in baseball threw fewer cutters than Kansas City. But if you look at the recent acquisitions, a common thread in many of the signings is that the new pitchers throw cutters. Anthony Misiewicz, who the Royals picked up from the Mariners last summer, throws a cutter more than a third of the time. Nick Wittgren, who the Royals signed as a minor league free agent this off-season, throws a cutter about 20 percent of the time. Mike Mayers, another minor league free agent, had his best success by relying on the cutter with the Angels.
Perhaps that is the influence of Zack Greinke, who added a cutter or “power slider” to his arsenal last year. But the Royals no longer seem to hold the cutter in contempt, and we could see a philosophy change on the pitch with a new pitching development team.
Royals hitters have their best walk rate in 20 years
With patient hitters like Carlos Santana, Andrew Benintendi, MJ Melendez, and Vinnie Pasquantino in the lineup, the Royals improved their walk rate from 7.0 percent in 2021 to 7.7 percent last year. It was a modest improvement, and still only good for 20th in baseball, but those numbers should continue to improve this year with a full season from Melendez and Pasquantino and with Drew Watres Nick Pratto getting more playing time. It really wouldn’t take much to post the best walk rate in 25 years - the last Royals lineup to walk 8 percent of the time was the 2002 squad. But there does seem to be an organizational shift in emphasizing plate discipline, and we could finally see the Royals be a patient team at the plate.
Scott Barlow will be traded
One of Dayton Moore’s weaknesses was an unwillingness to trade players with value away in a lost season. He famously insisted he did not shop players and saw value in winning even for a team buried in the standings. Owner John Sherman has talked about having more roster churn, and if he seeks to emulate teams like the Guardians and Rays, he will insist on moving valuable reliever Scott Barlow this season.
Barlow has been one of the more valuable relievers in baseball the last few years and he continued his success last year with a 2.18 ERA and 77 strikeouts in 74 1/3 innings. However his strikeout rate decreased and he had one of the biggest velocity drops last year, which should be a concern going forward.
Other teams are aware of this as well, but if Barlow can show he can still get hitters out, he could be a valuable reliever any contender would covet.
The Royals can probably wait until the deadline and get close to as much for him, but whether it’s now or in July, Scott Barlow is going to be traded, and he’s gonna have a huge impact on the pennant race and the playoffs in 2023.— Matthew Trueblood (@MATrueblood) January 2, 2023
We know relievers tend to have a short life, so even if the Royals have Barlow’s rights through 2024, they may be motivated to move him now before the velocity drop proves to be a problem.
Adalberto Mondesi will be a coveted player at the trade deadline
Well he can’t be hurt every year, can he? The frustration at Mondesi’s injury history and inconsistent play is understandable, but the risk in bringing him back on a salary that should be around $3 million is virtually nothing. If the Royals have him in more of a utility role, I think Mondesi could flourish as an infielder capable of providing good pop and speed off the bench. If he can stay reasonably healthy, he could be an intriguing trade candidate for a lot of contenders, even in a reserve role - think of Brandon Drury last year, or how valuable Jurickson Profar (another top prospect who didn’t quite live up to expectations) has been with the Padres. And with his very low salary, any contender - even the stingy Guardians and Rays - could be in the hunt to acquire him, which will create more possibities for the Royals.
Prospect Gavin Cross makes his MLB debut
The Royals selected Cross with the ninth pick in last year’s draft, and he absolutely destroyed A-ball pitching last year, hitting .293/.423/.596 with seven home runs in 26 games. He is a polished college hitter out of Virginia Tech, and already demonstrates a patient eye at the plate. It is not at all crazy to expect him to start out at High-A and move to Double-A by mid-season if he continues to hit. That could mean a cup of coffee in the big leagues before the year is out. Perhaps the Royals put the brakes on him so they don’t have to add him to the 40-man roster, but if there is a push to start winning in 2024, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to get Cross up and see what he can do this year if he is dominating the minors.
The Royals will finish in dead last place - but it will be a fun year anyway
Losing sucks, but I would much rather lose with young players than with past-their-prime veterans. The Royals are a good bet to finish in last place due to few, if any, improvement to a 97-loss team, plus the loss of All-Star Andrew Benintendi. But next year’s lineup is likely to feature young players, and on days that Salvador Perez needs a day off it is possible the entire lineup will be age 27 or younger.
A young team is a hungry team, and is also provides more roster flexibility. Underperforming players can be shipped to the minors, not stuck on the roster due to a large contract. There is a new wave of Royals players for fans to embrace and it appears this is a likeable bunch of players - we’ll have to see if they can bring the team back to contention.
John Sherman will splurge on free agents next off-season
Many fans have lamented how stingy the Royals have been this off-season in player acquisitions while at the same time proposing a $2 billion downtown ballpark district. Asking for millions in taxpayer dollars whiel refusing to invest the same in improving the team seems like the height of hubris.
But the Royals are not asking for public money...yet. The very earliest a vote could happen is next August, and that seems rather doubtful. What seems more likely is a public vote in the spring of 2024. Which means that the Royals can kick off the campaign to “vote yes” by splurging on player payroll next fall. Waiting a year from now has the added benefit of giving the team more of an idea on where holes need to be filled after giving young players a chance in 2023. See any names in next year’s free agent class that could help the Royals?
What are your predictions for the Royals in 2023?